In the United States, high school athletics are incredibly popular, in some cases even more popular than professional sports. High school basketball and football games for instance, are routinely played on national television during their respective seasons. There are even dozens of websites and organizations who rank the top 500 high school basketball players in the country. With this incredibly bright spotlight shining on high school athletes it is no wonder some of these kids are unable to live up to the expectations. It has become slightly disturbing how much pressure is placed on child athletes these days, but it seems to continue to happen, regardless of the consequences it causes.
We have all seen the high school, or college star basketball player who makes it to the NBA, but is unable to rise to the level that the NBA requires. That tale has been told many many times over, but there are also the rare cases of student athletes who are not quite developed, or mentally strong enough to stand out at the high school level. Some players who have made it to the NBA didn’t have the greatest beginning to their basketball careers’. Today we will give the top 8 players who peaked in high school, and we will also reveal the top 8 players who were slow starters, but found their way once they got a chance at the highest level.
8. Pro – John Starks
John Starks had an amazing career with the New York Knicks. He, along with Patrick Ewing, were the two players responsible for the exciting rivalry between Michael Jordan’s Bulls and the Knicks. That, however, almost never came to be. Starks only played one year of high school basketball. After high school he attended Rogers State College, where he joined the “taxi squad,” a glorified practice squad. While playing intramural basketball, Starks was noticed by Ken Trickey, the former coach at Oral Roberts University. Trickey liked Starks’ game enough to get him a spot on the Oklahoma Junior College team, where Trickey was coaching at the time. Starks was able to turn that bit of luck into a full ride scholarship to Oklahoma State University and ultimately all the way to the NBA.
During his NBA career Starks was an All-Star, an NBA All-Defensive Team selection, and a Sixth Man of the Year.
8. High School – Jonathan Bender
During his senior season at Picayune High in Mississippi Bender was named the 1999 Gatorade High School Player of the Year. Bender was an incredibly athletic big man. Standing at 6’11” Bender was literally head and shoulders above his competition in high school. After committing to Mississippi State, Bender changed his mind and decided it would be best if he entered the NBA draft out of high school. Jonathan was drafted by the Toronto Raptors with the fifth overall selection of the 1999 draft. The Raptors immediately traded him to the Indiana Pacers for veteran Antonio Davis.
In Indiana, Bender averaged just 5.6 points per game and 2.2 rebounds. Being drafted at such a young age, Bender was unable to overcome the pressures and expectations he was given when he arrived in Indiana. He ultimately retired after 10 NBA seasons, and a career average of 5.5 points per game.
7. Pro – Dennis Rodman
In his freshman year of high school Dennis Rodman was 5’6 and not athletic at all. He claims he was on the roster for his high school teams, but was often benched or even cut. After high school Rodman had an incredible growth spurt and shot up to 6’7. He decided to give basketball another shot. In his single semester at Cooke County College, Rodman averaged 17.6 points and 13.3 rebounds, before flunking out due to poor academic performance. Once he was able to get his act together, Rodman became a superstar collegiate player while at Southeastern Oklahoma State.
In 1986 he was a second round pick by the Detroit Pistons. Rodman would ultimately go on to win five NBA championships, and two Defensive Player of the Year awards. Also Rodman was ranked 48 in the 2009 SLAM Magazine top 50 list.
7. School: Darius Miles
Darius Miles was one of the early prep to pro players. He was drafted with the third overall pick in the 2000 draft by the Clippers. The Clippers looked to be building a quality young team at the time, and Darius was a huge addition. Miles was a 6’9 point forward before every team had a 6’9″ point forward. He was expected to do what Kevin Durant has done and revolutionize the position. However, Darius ended up proving to be far too immature to become what many thought he would be when he came out of East St. Louis Senior High School in Illinois.
After retiring in 2009 with a career average of 10 points per game, Miles declared for bankruptcy in 2016. Miles has evolved into the poster child for why the NBA instituted its draft eligibility rules.
6. Pro – Jimmy Butler
Let’s just say this first of all, Jimmy Butler should not be in the NBA. Before the 2011 draft, one NBA general manager said about Butler, “His story is one of the most remarkable I’ve seen in all my years of basketball. There were so many times in his life where he was set up to fail. Every time, he overcame just enormous odds. When you talk to him—and he’s hesitant to talk about his life—you just have this feeling that this kid has greatness in him.” His father left him when he was an infant, and his mother kicked him out of the house when he was 13 years old. Butler became extremely close with a friend he met in high school and eventually moved in with the friend’s family. He says it saved his life.
During this time Butler was a decent high school ball player, averaging 10 points per game during his junior year. Butler would get a chance to prove himself on the next level when he was offered a scholarship from Tyler Junior College in Texas. Butler obviously took full advantage of the opportunities he was given and is now a perennial NBA All-Star and MVP candidate.
6. School – Samardo Samuels
Samuels attended Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey. During his senior season with Saint Benedict’s he was ranked as the second best high school player in the nation by Scout.com. During the 2007-08 season he, along with current NBA star Tristan Thompson, led St. Benedicts’s Prep to a 24–1 record. The team finished that season as the second ranked high school team in America by USA Today. After his senior year Samara was invited to play in the two top All-American games, the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic.
With almost every quality Division I school offering him a scholarship, Samuels chose to attend Louisville University. He would start every game he played with the Cardinals, and in both his freshman and sophomore seasons he would lead the team in scoring and rebounding.
In 2010 he decided to enter the NBA draft and skip his final two years of college. Sam went undrafted, although he did get some time in the NBA through a D-league contract, but ultimately the bulk of Samuels’ career has been spent playing overseas.
5. Pro – Clyde Drexler
One of the 50 greatest players of all-time, and a member of the 1992 Dream Team, Clyde Drexler was not the best high school player on his own team. As a sophomore, Drexler was cut from his high school varsity basketball team. At 6’6, Clyde was forced to play the center position in order to make the team his junior season. It was not until his senior year that he began to get any looks from colleges. During a Christmas tournament in 1979 Drexler put up 34 points and 27 rebounds, this finally put Clyde on the map, a little. He received a scholarship offer from the University of Houston after his senior season, which he gladly accepted, especially since his best friend was going there as well.
Drexler did his thing at Houston and was drafted 14th overall in 1983. During his remarkable career Drexler was a 10-time All-Star, an NBA Champion, and had his number 22 retired by two different franchises.
5. School – Cliff Alexander
Growing up Cliff was more of a football player than a basketball player. It wasn’t until 8th grade that Alexander decided to give hoops a try. The moment he started playing, it was clear he had a future in the game. As a freshman, Cliff made the Varsity team at his Chicago area high school. As his high school career progressed it became clearer and clearer that this kid was something special. Along the way, Alexander was invited to Team USA’s Nike Hoop Summit, as well as All-American honors, and multiple exhibition games at the end of the high school basketball season. After rising all the way up to number one in the nation according to studentsports.com, Alexander decided to attend Kansas University.
In 2015 he was expected to be a lottery pick, but he suffered a serious injury during a pre-draft workout with the Los Angeles Lakers which caused him to go undrafted. The injury would linger with Cliff and it has prevented him from achieving the high expectations that were placed upon him. He recently signed a contract with the Orlando Magic, and is hoping to have a breakthrough season this fall.
4. Pro – Scottie Pippen
Pippen is the youngest of 12 children. He grew up in Hamburg, Arkansas where he went to Hamburg High School. Pippen was a talented 6’1″ point guard during his time at Hamburg, however he was not very well noticed by the scouts. Pippen helped lead his team to the state playoffs and received some All-State honors along the way, however, nothing from any major universities. Pippen ended up playing college ball at the University of Central Arkansas, earning his spot as a walk-on. During his time at UCA, Pippen had a growth spurt that shot him up to 6’8″ and enabled him to become a forward with point guard instincts.
After dominating the small conference he was in, Pippen was the fifth overall choice in the 1987 draft by the Seattle SuperSonics, who promptly traded him to Chicago. As we all know, Pippen would go on to win championship after championship with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
4. School – Dajuan Wagner
Dajuan Wagner grew up in Camden, New Jersey, which is one of the roughest cities in America. He was the one kid in the neighborhood who had a way out. It was clear early on that Wagner was destined for basketball immortality. His accolades in high school are historic, including his 100 point performance during his senior season. After high school Dajuan spent a year with John Calipari while he was still coaching at Memphis. After one year, Caliper literally forced Wagner to enter the NBA draft by taking his scholarship away. Wagner was selected with the sixth overall pick and set off to join the Cleveland Cavaliers. After only a few seasons Wagner was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis, a rare autoimmune disease. The diagnosis was devastating and the disease all but ended his career. After a couple failed comeback attempts, Wagner was forced to retire from the NBA and focus on his health.
3. Pro – Charles Barkley
Another one of the 50 greatest players of all time, Charles Barkley lands at number three. Barkley attended Leeds High School in Leeds, Alabama. As a junior Barkley was 5’10”, 220 pounds and he failed to make the varsity basketball team that season. During the summer before his senior season Barkley grew 6 inches and became a starter during his senior year. His senior season he averaged 19.2 points and 18.1 rebounds, while leading his team to a 28-3 record. Despite his stellar season, Barkley got little attention from major Division I programs.
That was until an Auburn assistant noticed him during the state playoffs, the assistant told the head coach at AU about Barkley, calling him “a fat guy… who can play like the wind.” Barkley jumped at the opportunity to play for a Division I school and signed immediately with Auburn… and the rest is history.
3. School – Shabazz Muhammad
Shabazz was one of the most highly touted player to ever come out of high school. During his time at Bishop Gorman high school in Las Vegas Nevada (a Catholic high school with a $12,000 annual tuition) Muhammad was ranked number one by most major outlets, even being called a “once-in-a-generation talent” by college expert Greg Anthony. Making the varsity team as a freshman was something that never happens at Bishop Gorman, but Shabazz made it happen. His high school accolades are lengthy, they include such achievements as being the “High School Diary Keeper” for SLAM Magazine, Gatorade Player of the Year, and McDonald’s All-American honors.
After spending one season with the UCLA Bruins Muhammad entered the NBA draft. He was viewed as a top three pick coming out of high school, but after a lackluster season with the Bruins he was selected 14th overall by the Utah Jazz. On draft night he was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves where he currently plays as a rotational player.
2. Pro – Russell Westbrook
Maybe the most athletic player in the game today, Westbrook didn’t play for his high school varsity team until his junior season. Westbrook began his high school career as a scrawny 5’8″ 140 pound freshman. Westbrook finally cracked the varsity roster during his junior year, but he was still searching for a scholarship offer until his senior season. Westbrook sprouted up to 6’3″ during the summer before his senior season and that growth spurt is just what he needed to get him to the next level. Russell had a stellar senior campaign which was noticed by the scouts at the UCLA. Ben Howland and his staff offered Russell a scholarship after his potential was shown in that senior year. Westbrook would attend UCLA for two years before entering the NBA draft and being selected fourth overall by the Seattle SuperSonics.
Now Westbrook is entering his first season in the NBA without co-star Kevin Durant and the pressure is on for Russell to perform as the teams’ sole leader.
2. School – Greg Oden
Many people know Greg Oden as the often injured center who the Portland Trail Blazers selected over Kevin Durant. Well he is that guy, but before that Greg Oden was a monster of a player. After moving multiple times in his early childhood, Oden and his mother settled in Indianapolis. Oden attended Lawrence North High School, where he is now a legend. Oden led Lawrence North to three consecutive state championships before graduating in 2006. As a junior he was named Parade’s High School Co-Player of the Year along with NBA star Monte Ellis. Also in 2005 he was awarded the Gatorade Player of the Year Award. He repeated as Gatorade Player of the Year in 2006. He was also on the McDonald’s All-American Team and played in the All-American game, and earned first-team Parade All-American honors for the second straight year. Not bad for a high school career.
Sadly for Oden, his successes would be far less abundant once he made it to the NBA. Oden played only three seasons in the NBA, most of which were ravaged by injury. In his entire NBA career Oden only appeared in 105 games.
1. Pro – Michael Jordan
The G.O.A.T. himself. Michael Jordan attended Emsley A. Laney High School in Wilmington, North Carolina. He was a multi sport athlete, playing baseball, football, and basketball. During his sophomore season, however, Jordan was famously cut from the varsity roster. He was told that 5’11” was just too short to play at the varsity level. Jordan would go out that season and set the junior varsity circuit on fire, big deal right? The following summer, MJ would grow four inches. After being cut as a sophomore Jordan lived the rest of his life as if he had something to prove. His junior year he made the varsity team and became one of the best players on the roster. His senior season is when he began to realize his true talents. Jordan finished his senior season as the team’s best player and he received scholarship offers from several Division I programs including North Carolina where he ultimately decided to go.
Needless to say, Michael Jordan went on to accomplish great things after the embarrassment and humbling cut from the varsity team. In his Hall of Fame speech MJ mentions the high school stumble and says it was a blessing in disguise.
1. School – Sebastian Telfair
Perhaps the most highly touted high school player ever to come out of New York City, Sebastian Telfair has not lived up to the big apple hype. His high school games were broadcast live on ESPN during his days at Lincoln High in Brooklyn. In 2004 Telfair was named Mr. Basketball USA, an honor given to the nation’s top high school baller. The winner the season prior was LeBron James, and Telfair beat out Dwight Howard for the award in 2004. Something else Telfair had in common with LeBron James was the cover of SLAM Magazine. Back in 2002, when Telfair was only a sophomore in high school, he and LeBron James shared the iconic magazine cover with the caption “The Takeover” plastered on the front. Since entering the draft in 2004 Telfair has spent time with nine different NBA organizations as well as three teams in China’s professional basketball league.