In 2006 the NBA instituted a new rule regarding high school players making the jump from high school straight to the NBA. The rule was made with the players’ interests in mind, as well as the NBA’s level of play.
It all began in 1995 with Kevin Garnett. Well technically it began in 1963 with Reggie Harding, but the true flood of high school players to the NBA began with KG in 1995. It was Garnett who made it seem possible for a stand-out high school player to jump straight into the NBA and be competitive. The only thing was, most high school players, as talented as they may be, are not always ready to jump into NBA locker rooms and NBA games. Now of course there have been some players who made the jump and did it was grace and success, however the list of players who fell flat on their face is much longer and uglier.
So in 2006 the NBA decided they needed to do something about the epidemic of 18-year-olds trying to compete in a man’s environment. The new rule stated that players must be at least one year removed from high school before they are eligible for the NBA. This does not mean that a player must go to college. Some players such as Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay decided to play overseas for a year before entering the NBA, and that seems to have worked out just fine for them.
Today we will comb through the 44 players who made the jump from high school to the NBA and determine who are the ten best and who are the ten worst to do so.
10. Best – J.R. Smith
Freshly minted NBA champion, J.R. Smith gets things underway. During his time at Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School, Smith averaged over 27 points, six rebounds and five assists per game on his way to being a McDonald’s All-American. After winning c0-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game, Smith decided to enter himself into the NBA Draft.
With the 18th overall pick, the New Orleans Hornets drafted Smith. After two seasons with the Hornets, Smith was traded to the Denver Nuggets. Smith had success in Denver but he became more synonymous with immature behavior than actual play on the court. Smith played a season in China during the 2011 NBA lockout, and when he came back it appeared he had matured during his time overseas. He signed with the New York Knicks and became a Sixth Man of the Year. Smith was still a bit of a head case in NY but he was certainly better than the younger version of himself. Once he was traded to the Cavaliers in 2015, he became a much more professional basketball player.
10. Worst – Jonathan Bender
In 1999 the Toronto Raptors drafted Jonathan Bender out of Picayune Memorial High School in Picayune, Mississippi. He was projected to be exactly what Kevin Durant turned out to be. Bender was a 7 feet, 200 pound skinny kid with freakish athleticism.
After selecting him fifth overall, the Raptors promptly traded him to the Indiana Pacers, for veteran forward Antonio Davis. The Pacers were hoping Bender would turn into a superstar, but it was still too early to know for sure at the time of the trade. As a teenager, Bender saw minimal court time, but in his third season he had the best year of his career, averaging over seven points and three rebounds. Following that season he signed a $28 million contract extension with the Pacers.
Unfortunately for Bender and the Pacers, Bender would fight injuries for the rest of his career. After retiring in 2010 Bender invented the JB Intensive Trainer, a resistance training device, that strengthened his knees.
9. Best – Rashard Lewis
Rashard Lewis is a player who has never gotten the credit he deserves for his impact on the current state of NBA basketball. Lewis was one of the first seven footers to be able to knock down the three-point shot with regularity. Lewis and Ray Allen formed the original version of the splash brothers when they teamed up in Seattle during the early 2000s.
Coming out of high school, most teams were a bit weary of Lewis, who at nearly 7′ weighed about 215 pounds. After falling to the second round, the Seattle SuperSonics swooped up the sharp shooter with the 32nd pick in the draft. Lewis spent his 16 year career playing with mostly contending teams, including the NBA champion Miami Heat in 2013. Lewis also proved the critics wrong when he was selected to two NBA All-Star teams, in 2005, and 2009.
9. Worst – Korleone Young
As a high school player, Young was recruited by almost every powerhouse university in the country. With his stock high and money in his eyes, Young decided to skip college and go straight for the NBA. His stock slid drastically in the days and weeks heading into the draft, and in 1998 the Pistons selected him with the fortieth pick. Young’s time with the Pistons was very short lived. He appeared in three games at the end of the 1999 season. After the season, Detroit cut Young, citing his injury problems as the main reason for his departure from the team.
Young attempted to earn his way onto the Philadelphia 76ers in 2000, but he was unable to crack the regular season roster. Korleone is one of the key players that people point to when defending David Stern’s decision to implement the one year removed from high school rule. Ultimately Young played a bit overseas, but his career never took off, and in 2009 he was arrested for failing to appear for a child support hearing.
8. Best – Jermaine O’Neal
Jermaine O’Neal grew up in South Carolina under the guidance of a single mother. Growing up without much parental control, O’Neal was left to fiend for himself much of the time. Luckily for Jermaine, he found basketball at an early age and he was able to devote his time to something that would pay off in the long run.
As a 6’11” high school superstar in South Carolina, O’Neal drew attention from many NBA scouts during his senior year. The fact that he averaged 22.4 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5.2 blocks a game also caught some scouts’ attention. You would assume that Jermaine had his pick of any Division I school he wanted, considering he was named the best player in SC his senior year, as well as being a McDonald’s All-American and a USA Today All-American. However, O’Neal scored poorly on his SAT test and many schools were skeptical to his eligibility once he arrived on campus. Jermaine weighed his options, ultimately opting for the NBA straight from high school.
A big factor in his decision was the fact that one year prior, fellow South Carolinian, Kevin Garnett made a seamless transition to the NBA from high school. Things worked out for Jermaine and he went on to have a very impressive 18 year career.
8. Worst – Leon Smith
Leon Smith was selected out of Chicago’s famous Martin Luther King High School. He was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, 29th overall in the 1999 draft. On draft day he was immediately traded to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for the draft rights to Gordan Giriček and a second-round pick in the following year’s draft.
Smith never ended up playing a game with the Mavericks. It was a few months after being traded that he was committed to a psychiatric ward for some severe mental health issues. It was later reported that he had been committed because of an episode in which he threw a rock through a car window, and reportedly told police he was “an Indian fighting Columbus.” Ultimately Smith played 14 games with the Atlanta Hawks in 2002, and he played in one game with the Seattle SuperSonics in 2003.
7. Best – Tyson Chandler
Tyson Chandler was one of the greatest high school basketball players in the history of high school hoops. As a 9-year-old, Chandler was already almost 6′ tall. By the time he got to high school he was developed physically into his enormous frame. As a high school player Chandler went to famed Dominguez high near Compton, California. During his four years at Dominguez, Chandler was a celebrity. He drove an Escalade, got the girls, and even had a segment on 60 Minutes about him. In his senior season Tyson led Dominguez to a California state championship, averaging 20 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and three blocks per game.
Once he decided college was not for him, Chandler entered the NBA draft in 2001. Chandler was selected second overall, right behind infamous draft bust Kwame Brown. Since he joined the NBA, Tyson has accomplished quite a lot. He was the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 and he was the anchor of the Dallas Mavericks championship team in 2011.
7. Worst – James Lang
Part of the amazing 2003 high school graduating class, James Lang declared for the NBA straight out of high school along with Lebron James, Travis Outlaw, Endudi Ebi and Kendrick Perkins. Lang, unfortunately had the worst luck of the four.
The New Orleans Hornets drafted Lang 48th overall in 2003, but he was unable to make the team due to back injuries. In 2005 James attended a pre-season camp with the Utah Jazz, but again he was unable to make the team’s 15-man roster. In 2006 the Washington Wizards gave Lang his first and only taste of NBA action. He appeared in 11 games for the Wizards where he averaged one point and one rebound per game. In 2009 his dream of ever playing pro ball again was snatched from him when he was partially paralyzed from a stroke.
6. Best – Amar’e Stoudemire
Amar’e Stoudamire had one of the roughest childhoods of anyone on this list. His parents split when he was very young. At age 12, Stoudemire’s father died, and his mother was in and out of prison for most of Amare’s youth. With his parents out of the picture, Stoudemire spent time living with coaches and friends. As he entered high school his mother was in and out of his life, causing him much more drama than a teenager should be able to handle. Amar’e bounced to five different high schools in four years, only being able to play basketball two of those years. Both of those years he was named MVP of the Nike Summer League. It was clear he had a future in the game, it was just a matter of him getting the opportunities.
In 2002 he spent his final high school year in Orlando, Florida where he averaged 29.1 points per game, 15.1 rebounds, and 6.1 blocks a game. His incredible athleticism and impact on the game had him ranked as the nation’s top high school prospect. Ultimately Stoudemire spent 14 years in the NBA, and was a six time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, an a five time All-NBA Team selection.
6. Worst – Ndudi Ebi
Another one of those stellar high school kids from the 2003 high school graduating class. Ndudi Ebi was rated the third best player in high school during his senior season, but sadly he turned out to be the biggest bust of the class.
The Timberwolves selected Ebi with their first round pick in 2003. Ebi spent three seasons with the Wolves appearing in only 19 games. During his third season Minnesota attempted to send him to the D-League, but league rules did not allow them to send him down. Ultimately the Wolves released Ebi to make room for a more promising young player.
After being released by Minnesota, Ebi was signed by the Dallas Mavericks but after only five pre-season games, Ebi was released by Dallas, never to be seen in the NBA again. Ebi has spent the last 10 years playing all over the world in professional basketball leagues.
5. Best – Dwight Howard
As far as high school players go, there are not many who were more dominant than Dwight. He won practically every high school award there is during his senior season including Gatorade Player of the Year, Naismith Prep Player of the Year, and the McDonald’s Player of the Year.
When he entered the NBA draft in 2004, the Orlando Magic had little hesitation when they selected him first overall. Dwight didn’t disappoint. In his rookie season he averaged a double-double, as he has every single season of his career. As his career progressed, Dwight got the reputation of being a bad teammate, and a bit of a diva. Regardless of his reputation, the production Dwight has been able to exhibit is unrivaled during his time in the NBA.
5. Worst – Ricky Sanchez
Ricky Sanchez was the fourth Puerto Rican player ever to be drafted. If you have never heard of Ricky that is not surprising. Sanchez has never played a single minute in an NBA game. After being taken with the 35th pick in the 2005 draft, Sanchez was immediately traded to the Denver Nuggets. That was the trend for Sanchez as his rights have been traded a total of four times. There is even a Philadelphia 76ers themed podcast titled “The Rights to Ricky Sanchez.”
Even though he has never played a game in the NBA, Ricky has carved out a nice little niche for himself in the Baloncesto Superior Nacional league. This is the professional league in his home country of Puerto Rico. Sanchez has won a championship there as well as winning the Most Improved Player of the Year Award in 2011.
4. Best – Tracy McGrady
In 1997 anyone who payed attention to high school athletics knew who Tracy McGrady was. Not only was T-Mac viewed as one of the greatest basketball players in America, he was also a top baseball prospect as well.
After his incredible senior year, in which he was named the USA Today High School Basketball Player of the Year, Tracy decided he was ready for the NBA. McGrady’s NBA career started a little slow, mainly because his coach was reluctant to give the slender rookie any playing time. Once a new play caller was hired, McGrady began to see his minutes go up and his production immediately followed. By his fourth year in the league he was averaging 26.8 points a night. Some injuries prevented McGrady from realizing his truest potential, but he was still able to lead the league in scoring twice, as well as make seven all-star teams, and seven All-NBA teams.
4. Worst – Ousmane Cisse
Ousmane Cisse attended Montgomery Catholic High School in Montgomery, Alabama. While in high school Cisse was a superstar, helping lead his team to a 2A State Championship. In his first game as a Catholic Knight, he broke the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s record for block shots… in the first half.
After his senior season of high school ball, he decided to put his name in the NBA Draft. Being a supremely undersized center, at only 6’9″ his stock was never incredibly high as a draft pick. Ultimately he was selected in the middle of the second round by the Denver Nuggets, who signed him, then released him after he suffered an injury before ever playing an NBA game. Cisse found his way onto the Harlem Globetrotters for a short period of time before playing in the USBL and overseas professionally.
3. Best – Kobe Bryant
What is there to say about “The Black Mamba” that hasn’t already been said? In high school Kobe was named Player of the Year as a junior. He led his high school team to a 77-13 record over his final three seasons, and he went straight to the NBA as an eighteen year old.
Once he got to the NBA, Kobe would become one of the greatest player to ever play the game. After being drafted by the Hornets, he was promptly traded to the Los Angeles Lakers where he become half of the greatest big man-little man combos ever. He and Shaquille O’Neal would go on to win three NBA titles together before the two had to go their separate ways. Kobe retired last season to the greatest farewell tour a basketball player has ever seen, and it was well deserved. Bryant’s legacy is something that can never be taken away and the fact that he was not selected until the 13th pick in the draft is something that twelve unlucky general managers will never live down.
3. Worst – Kwame Brown
The first player to ever be selected number one overall straight out of high school, Kwame Brown was drafted by the Washington Wizards in 2001, a choice made by none other than Michael Jordan. Brown was ranked the best high school player in the country during his senior year, beating out future NBA players Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler.
Michael Jordan was not the only GM to see great potential in Brown. Teams across the league were lining up to make a move up the draft board in order to get the high school All-American. Brown was able to last 12 seasons in the NBA, thanks in large part to his enormous size and willingness to take less money in order to stay in the league. When he finally retired, Brown did so with career averages of just under seven points per game and five rebounds.
2. Best – Kevin Garnett
There is something to be said about being the first to do something. In 1995 Kevin Garnett did something that had not been done in decades when he entered the NBA Draft straight out of high school.
Garnett had been in a bit of a sticky legal spot after his junior year of high school when he was still living in South Carolina. Kevin and his mother decided it would be best if they moved to a new neighborhood and started fresh. KG spent his senior season at Farragut Career Academy in Chicago, Illinois. During that season he would become the High School Player of the Year, Illinois Mr. Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American.
KG recently announced his retirement after two decades in the league. He accomplished everything an NBA player could ever want to accomplish. He even spent his last season as a mentor to some of the games brightest young talent. The career that Kevin Garnett just finished has to rank as one of the greatest story book careers in the history of the game.
2. Worst – Robert Swift
Robert Swift is one of the best examples of why kids should spend a year or two in college before entering a world of glitz, glamor, temptation and riches.
As a 7’1″ high school senior, Swift literally stood head and shoulders above his competition. After being a top 10 ranked high school prospect, Swift verbally agreed to attend USC after high school. However, after some further thought, Swift chose to take his talents to the NBA. In 2004 the Seattle SuperSonics drafted Swift with the 12th overall pick in the draft. Robert lasted four years in the NBA with a grand total of 97 games played. After bouncing around the D-League and the NBA, Swift found himself in legal trouble. In 2015, Swift was arrested for his involvement in an armed home invasion attempt. Swift claimed he was high on drugs at the time of the incident.
1. LeBron James
LeBron James was a celebrity long before his rookie season in the NBA. During his junior year was having his high school games broadcast live on ESPN. His team’s games were often played in college gymnasiums so that they could fit all the people in to see him play.
When LeBron made the jump from high school to the NBA it was a forgone conclusion where he would be drafted. It was a fairytale storyline. His hometown Cleveland Cavaliers owned the rights to the number one pick back in 2003 and LeBron was coming to save Cleveland, or so it seemed. As he progressed through his career he found road blocks at every turn on his way to an NBA championship. James ultimately realized he needed more help than Cleveland could offer, and he infamously “took his talents to South Beach” to join the Miami Heat.
After four straight trips to the NBA Finals, LeBron took his talents back to Ohio, and since then he has guided the Cavs to two consecutive NBA Finals appearances, including last season when he finally brought a championship back to Cleveland. At only 31 years old, LeBron is still in the prime of his career. There is no telling how this fairy tale will end but it surly has been interesting.
1. Worst – Sebastian Telfair
As a high school sophomore Telfair was on the cover of SLAM Magazine along with LeBron James. The headline across the cover of that magazine read, “The Takeover.” Well we all know how LeBron turned out, if you don’t just jump ahead to the 10 best players to jump from high school to the NBA.
Telfair was the pride of Brooklyn, New York during his days as a high school superstar. Many believed he was the greatest player to come out of New York City when he decided to enter the NBA draft in 2004. The Portland Trail Blazers took the bait and drafted the undersized, flashy point man with the 13th overall pick in 2004. Sebastian lasted two seasons in Portland before he was shipped away to Boston. Ultimately Telfair played 10 seasons in the NBA, much of that time spent on the bench. He currently plays in the Italian professional league Serie A, with hopes of someday getting another shot at the NBA.