Just think: there is a whole generation of NBA fans who have never witnessed a prep-to-pro basketball player. The 2005 NBA Draft serves as the last draft (for now) in which high school players could choose to bypass college and go straight to the NBA. The following year the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement prohibited such transitions but the prep-to-pro process gave us such all-time greats as Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James.
However, on the other hand there have been lots more misses with these high schoolers in the NBA than there have been hits. Of the 44 high school draftees only 10 have made an All-Star team which means the majority of them have ranged from being a decent player to a complete bust. Drafting these prep stars was a complete gamble as you are basing their future production solely on potential. It’s hard to decipher how good someone is when they are playing against 16 and 17-year-olds.
In contrast, playing in college has its benefits and its drawbacks. Players get to develop in pro-style systems while also playing against future pros. But with more scouts watching than in high school, each and every part of your game is dissected and that could cause more red flags to be raised. There have been so many “sure things” in college basketball that flopped once they got to the NBA while there have also been guys who couldn’t get off the bench in college who became stars in the NBA.
It’s time to revisit some of these prep stars who couldn’t stick in the league and some college guys who got better in the NBA. Here are 10 great high school players who failed in the NBA and 10 bad college players that succeeded.
20 High School/Failed: Andray Blatche
A man-child while still in high school, Blatche graduated from South Kent School in Connecticut which is the same school that produced Isaiah Thomas three years later. After averaging 27.5 PPG, 16.0 RPG, and 6.0 BPG as a senior, Blatche took advantage of the NBA’s final season in which players could go from high school straight to the NBA as he declared for the 2005 draft. While projected as a first round pick, Blatche dropped to the bottom of the 2nd round amid concerns about his maturity that would later be validated.
Even though Blatche would play nine years in the NBA with the Wizards and Nets; what happened off the court sticks out more than what he did on it. During the offseason after his second season, Blatche was arrested for solicitation of prostitution in Washington DC. A year later, and after being pulled over for reckless driving, officers also found out that Blatche was driving on a suspended license for the third time so he was again arrested. His NBA career would end in 2014 when he disagreed with Nets coach Jason Kidd about his playing time and was essentially blackballed from the NBA. He now plays for a pro team in China.
19 College/Succeeded: Dennis Johnson
The future three-time NBA champion was 5’9 in high school and received no college offers. While playing street basketball in Los Angeles (and after having a 6 inch growth spurt), Johnson was noticed by a coach at LA Harbor College and enrolled there. However, he developed problems with that coach and was kicked off the team three separate times. Johnson would eventually land with Pepperdine University which was certainly not known for its basketball program. He played one year there and put up decent numbers for NBA teams were still worried about his character issues.
Johnson would eventually be drafted by the SuperSonics in 1976 where he started off as a backup. He would soon ascend into the starting lineup and everything came together three years later as he made the first of five All-Star teams and the Sonics won the NBA championship. After then spending three years in Phoenix; Johnson joined the Celtics in 1983 and would win another title in his first season in Boston. Another title would come two years later and Larry Bird called him the best teammate he ever had. DJ would suffer a fatal heart attack in 2007 and was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2010.
18 High School/Failed: Sebastian Telfair
To this day, Telfair is the only point guard to be drafted straight out of high school as he was often compared to his cousin, Stephon Marbury. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as an 18-year-old after a stellar prep career in Brooklyn. After originally committing to playing for Rick Pitino at Louisville; Telfair decided to bypass college and was the 13th pick in the 2004 draft by the Trail Blazers. Along with Travis Outlaw (2003) and Martell Webster (2005), Telfair was the second of three straight high school players that Portland drafted in the first round.
Telfair would last two years in Portland before embarking on a journeyman career. He played for eight different teams across 10 seasons and could never land a full-time starting job. He also had a couple of legal problems while an active player including being robbed of a $50,000 chain in 2006 and criminal possession of a weapon in 2007. Telfair currently plays in China like his cousin Marbury but he returned to his native New York during the 2017 offseason and was again arrested; this time for possession of guns and drugs after a traffic stop.
17 College/Succeeded: Antonio Davis
Davis attended University of Texas-El Paso for four years and while there he teamed up with future five-time All-Star Tim Hardaway for three seasons. Davis had pedestrian averages of 9.2 PPG and 6.1 RPG over his college career even though he was playing against inferior competition in the WAC. Even after Hardaway left for the NBA when Davis was a junior, Davis still only averaged 10 points per game as the team’s top option. That, in part, caused him to not be selected until the second round of the 1990 draft.
Instead of initially joining the NBA, Davis played overseas for three seasons before joining the Pacers in 1993. In six years in Indiana, Davis would form a talented frontcourt along with Dale Davis and Rik Smits. He was then traded to Toronto where he became an All-Star for the only time in his career at the age of 32. David would then go on to play with the Bulls and Knicks before returning to the Raptors to finish out his career. He now works as a NBA analyst for ESPN.
16 High School/Failed: Robert Swift
Despite going to three different high schools in California, Robert Swift was one of the most highly-coveted recruits in the nation. He was over 7 feet tall and ran the floor like a deer so colleges all across the nation were after him. He committed to USC in 2004 but decided to go pro instead of enrolling in college. Oozing with potential, Swift was a lottery pick in the draft by the Supersonics but that’s when his problems began. He spent more time in the D-league than with the Sonics/Thunder and missed an entire season due to a torn ACL. His final appearance in the NBA came in 2009 at the age of 24 years old.
Things would get worse for Swift after leaving the league as in 2013 he was forced to vacate his foreclosed home. The house was reportedly riddled with animal feces, guns, and beer bottles and Swift then moved in with a friend. A year later Swift was arrested at that friend’s home for being in possession of a sawed-off shotgun. His last shot with the NBA came during the 2016 preseason when he had a tryout with the Warriors D-League team. He didn’t make the cut and it’s unknown what Swift is up to now.
15 College/Succeeded: Steven Adams
The New Zealand big man was a high school dropout who needed one of his 17 siblings to step in and set him straight by sending him back to school. After going to two high schools in New Zealand, Adams then came to the United States and enrolled in Notre Dame Prep near Boston for one semester. It was there where the University of Pittsburgh noticed this huge but extremely raw talent and they offered him a scholarship.
At 7’0” 250 lb, Adams relied on brute strength and size over actual ability in his one year at Pittsburgh and his first year in the NBA. Battling with Kendrick Perkins for two years with the Thunder accelerated his learning curve and he became a starter in his second NBA season. By 2016 he was the team’s best big man and they signed him to a $100 million contract and traded away longtime starter, Serge Ibaka. Adams has improved his scoring average in every season and he’s the perfect big man on both ends of the court to complement Russell Westbrook.
14 High School/Failed: Dorell Wright
Wright first came into prominence while a senior at Leuzinger High School and as a senior he played with a freshman named Russell Westbrook. Wright then served a fifth year of high school at a boarding school in Connecticut where he averaged 29.4 points and 5 blocks per game. A five-star recruit, Wright elected to forego college and joined the 2004 NBA draft where he was selected 19th overall by Miami. A year before, Miami had drafted Dwyane Wade and they hoped that Wright and Wade would be their wings of the future. Well, they were half right. Wright didn’t attain the success that Wade did but Wright was successful in convincing his teammate of being his son’s godfather.
Wright spent six years in South Beach before some other small forward decided to take his talents there. He then went to the Golden State but again left a team too early as the Warriors would become “The Warriors” after he departed. He finished his career out with the 76ers and then the Trail Blazers before retiring in 2016, following one final short stint in Miami. His younger brother, Delon, is currently a backup guard with the Toronto Raptors.
13 College/Succeeded: Randy Smith
Smith was a great athlete in college but not necessarily a great basketball player. He was a three-sport athlete at Buffalo State College and played basketball, soccer, and ran track. He set a state record in the high jump and NBA teams were unsure if he would commit to basketball full-time. As a result, Smith wasn’t drafted until the 7th round (out of 9 rounds) and was the 104th overall pick. Part of the reason he was even drafted at all was because he was close by to the then-Buffalo Braves who selected him and Smith remains the only player out of Buffalo State to ever play in the NBA.
Smith would excel in the NBA as an undersized small forward for the Braves/Clippers. He was the NBA’s ironman until A.C. Green broke his record of 906 consecutive games played. Smith was a two-time All-Star and was the game’s MVP in 1978 when he came off the bench to score 27 points. Staying true to his multi-sport roots; Smith tried out for a North American Soccer League team during his time with the Braves and the team wanted to sign him to a contract. However, the Braves had put a clause in his contract which prevented him from playing pro soccer.
12 High School/Failed: Kendrick Perkins
Perk AKA Swamp Thing had the best mean-mug in the game for about a decade. But before entering the NBA he was a state champion at Ozen High in Beaumont and averaged nearly 8 blocks per game as a senior. He was a top-5 player in the nation in the class of 2003 and even ranked ahead of Chris Paul. He was the 27th overall pick in the 2003 draft and landed in Boston on a draft-day trade. After playing on a bunch of bad Celtics teams, the franchise’s fortunes changed when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined the team in 2007. Perk was the team’s starting center and enforcer on their 2008 championship team which shows you that skill isn’t a pre-requisite to being successful in the NBA. He would play in the Finals again in 2010 with Boston and later in 2012 with the OKC Thunder. He finished out his career with short stints as the bodyguard for LeBron James in Cleveland and then Anthony Davis in New Orleans. It appears that his NBA career is over but he did say in early 2017 that he was doing two-a-days with hopes of returning to OKC for one last run.
11 College/Succeeded: Kent Bazemore
Bazemore was so bad in college that he was asked to take a rare basketball redshirt year. He did this not at a school like UNC or Kentucky, but at Old Dominion of the Colonial Athletic Association. Bazemore would crack the ODU lineup thanks to his work on the defensive end and would eventually be named the CAA Defensive Player of the Year twice during his time at ODU. Throughout his five years at Old Dominion (4 as a player), Bazemore had a career scoring average of just 10.1 points per game and went undrafted in the 2012 NBA draft.
The Baze would sign with the Warriors after an impressive Summer League run and would spend much of his one-and-a-half years in The Bay shuffling between the Warriors and their D-league team. After half-a-season with the Lakers, Bazemore then signed a two-year deal with the Hawks. It was there where he got his first true opportunity as a starter and was able to cash in after the contract expired. Last offseason Bazemore signed a four-year contract worth $70 million after making just $5.2 million over his first four seasons combined.
10 High School/Failed: Eddy Curry
The man nicknamed “Baby Shaq” was one of the best prep players to ever come out of Chicago. As a senior at Thornwood High School, Curry was named Illinois’ Mr. Basketball which is an award that Kevin Garnett previously one and Derrick Rose would go on to win. When the Bulls drafted him 4th overall in 2001, Curry was elated to be staying at home but soon the pressure and expectations of playing for Chicago caught up to him. He turned out to be worse than the team’s other highly-drafted rookie, Tyson Chandler, as Curry struggled with conditioning and motivation. Curry would then move to the Knicks after four seasons, and while he put up decent numbers, his teams always seemed to get worse when he joined them.
But nothing that happened on the court compared to what happened to Curry in 2009 as his daughter and his ex-girlfriend were murdered in Chicago. The assailant would get life imprisonment while Curry would play just a handful more NBA games. He did manage to sneak back into the league in 2012 and won an NBA title with the Miami Heat.
9 College/Succeeded: Darrell Armstrong
Armstrong was a football player first and a basketball player second during his time at tiny Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. He was a walk-on kicker during his first two years at the school and wasn’t even on the basketball team. He then gave up football and took up basketball and played three years on the hoops team. But Armstrong’s play wasn’t enough to attract the attention of NBA scouts as he went undrafted in 1991 and spent 4 years playing for minor leagues while doubling as an assistant high school coach.
Armstrong finally made his way to the NBA as a 26-year-old rookie in 1995. He joined the Orlando Magic and would spend 9 years with the franchise as the team transitioned from the Shaq and Penny era to the Tracy McGrady era. His best success came in 1999 when he became the only player in NBA history to win both the 6th Man of the Year award and the Most Improved Player award in the same season. DA would play in the NBA until he was 39 years old and after wrapping up his playing career, he joined the Mavs as an assistant and is still with them today.
8 High School/Failed: DeSagana Diop
NBA scouts love size and Diop had it in spades even as a teenager. The 7’0” 280 lb. center led the famed Oak Hill Academy to a #1 national ranking and undefeated season in 2000-01. Oak Hill Academy is a basketball powerhouse that has produced such players as Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, and Rajon Rondo. Diop was a good defender but his offensive game makes DeAndre Jordan look like Hakeem Olajuwon. He rarely got off the bench after playing for the Cavs for four seasons but was a vital cog during his time with the Mavericks and was their starting center when they advanced to the 2006 NBA Finals. In over 600 NBA games, Diop averaged 2.0 points per game which is the lowest ever for any NBA player who played at least 600 games. After retiring in 2013 Diop joined the coaching staff of the Mavs’ D-League team and was promoted to an assistant D-League coach in 2015. He then joined the Jazz staff in 2016 and can be credited with making Rudy Gobert one of the best defenders in the league.
7 College/Succeeded: Jeremy Lin
Growing up in northern California, Lin went to Palo Alto High School which sits right across the street from the campus of Stanford University. As a senior he was named the NorCal Division II Player of the Year but none of the big schools were interested in him. Lin even sent his resume and a highlight tape to Stanford but they only wanted him as a walk-on as did UCLA and Cal. Harvard and Brown were the only two schools who could guarantee him a spot on the basketball team and Lin decided to join the Crimson of Harvard. He would go on to make three All-Ivy League teams but there was a stigma about Ivy League players in NBA circles and one had not been drafted since 1995. That wouldn’t change when Lin entered his name into the draft and he was forced to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Warriors.
Even though he was playing just 30 minutes from where he grew up, Lin couldn’t get off the bench behind Steph Curry with the Warriors. After overseas during the 2011 lockout and then having a cup of coffee with the Warriors, Lin signed with the Knicks late in 2011. All it took was about a hot two-week stretch for Linsanity to be born and for Lin to become the talk of the NBA. Lin would cash in the following offseason as he signed a $25 million deal to return to Houston. Even though he never reached the heights of his Knicks days, Lin has proven to be a starting-caliber point guard. He made his return to New York in 2016 when he signed a three-year deal with the Nets totaling $36 million.
6 High School/Failed: Jonathan Bender
Along with Eddy Curry, Jonathan Bender is one of two MVPs from the McDonald’s All-American game to make this list. Bender looked like a skinnier version of Kevin Durant coming out of high school as he stood 7 feet tall and weighed less than 200 pounds. Pacers fans can thank him for breaking up the Davis Boys as Bender was drafted by Toronto but traded to Indiana for Antonio Davis in 1999. He played with fellow prep-to-pros Jermaine O’Neal and Al Harrington in Indiana but Bender’s fragility limited him his entire NBA career. He missed over 600 games due to injuries during his career including three entire seasons (2006-2009).
He made a brief comeback with the Knicks in 2009 but played just 25 games and subsequently retired. Unlike many other high school busts, Bender was actually successful in his post-NBA career and he invented a medical device in 2014 that helps people rehab from leg injuries.
5 College/Succeeded: Jeff Hornacek
The son of a high school coach, Hornacek was both a redshirt and a walk-on during his 5 years at Iowa State. When he finished school he was the Big 8 Conference’s all-time leader in points and assists. He was seen as a point guard/shooting guard tweener coming out of college and fell to the second round when he was drafted by the Suns. With Phoenix he was an All-Star and a part of a three-man backcourt alongside Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle but after six years he was then shipped to Philadelphia in a trade that netted the Suns Charles Barkley. Hornacek would play two years for the Sixers and would then join the Utah Jazz where he experienced his greatest team success. Utah would make back-to-back Finals appearances in 1997 and 1998.
After retiring in 2000 Hornacek would spend a couple of years out of basketball before rejoining the Jazz as a coach in 2007. He would eventually become the head coach of the Suns in 2013 and then the New York Knicks in 2016.
4 High School/Failed: Travis Outlaw
Outlaw had the perfect surname to join the Trail Blazers who had just completed their “Jail Blazers” era. He was a first round pick by the team in 2003 after being the third-ranked small forward in his high school class, trailing only LeBron James and Luol Deng. Outlaw was a little ahead of his time as he was a small-ball 4 at a time when the league didn’t really employ small-ball power forwards. He spent six-and-a-half years in Portland but started just 26 games during his tenure there.
After signing a 5-year, $35 million contract with the Nets, Outlaw was waived after just one season via the amnesty provision. That meant that he still got his money, but the contract no longer counted towards the Nets’ salary cap. Outlaw would then play three years for the Kings and during his 11 year NBA career he played in just six playoff games. After leaving the NBA, Outlaw lived up to his name as he was arrested and charged with felony possession of marijuana in Mississippi.
3 College/Succeeded: Bruce Bowen
Bowen’s game has never relied on freaky athleticism or exceptional skill and that dates back all the way to his college days at Cal-State Fullerton. None of the Pac-12 schools showed much interest in the California native so he had to join the Titans of the Big West. He was a three-year starter but teams paid more attention to a player’s offensive ability back then more so than his defense so Bowen went undrafted in 1993. He spent four years in various minor leagues before finally latching on with the Miami Heat in 1997 on a 10-day contract.
Bowen would get immediate notice for his play on the defensive end and would go from a 10-day contract to a one-year contract to a two-year contract before hitting it big with the Spurs in 2001. Bowen spent 8 years in San Antonio and won three titles in addition to having his jersey retired by the team. Along the way he made 8 straight All-Defensive teams including being a first-team selection 5 times.
2 High School/Failed: Kwame Brown
Until Anthony Bennett came around, Kwame Brown was the biggest bust in NBA history. After a standout career at Glynn Academy in Georgia, Brown’s athleticism at 6’11” had him compared to Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace. Michael Jordan even came out of retirement to play with Brown after the Wizards made him the first high school player to be drafted first overall in 2001. Brown may have looked the part of a future star, but his immaturity and laziness made him nothing more than a laughingstock in the NBA. No matter if he was playing alongside Jordan or Kobe Bryant, or being coached by Phil Jackson, no one could maximize Brown’s talents.
He managed to last 12 seasons in the NBA and racked up nearly $64 million as a backup center for seven different teams. After four years away from the game, Brown came out of “retirement” and entered his name into another draft, this one coming in the new three-on-three league. You can catch Brown playing in the Big3 this summer alongside former players Rashard Lewis and Jason “White Chocolate” Williams.
1 College/Succeeded: Ben Wallace
Big Ben was a nobody in the rural Alabama town he grew up in and received no major college offers. In fact, the only reason he was able to sign with Virginia Union to play ball was after the recommendation of VUU’s greatest basketball alum, Charles Oakley. Wallace attended an Oakley basketball camp in the early 1990s, and after striking up a friendship, then then-Knick put in a good word about Wallace to Virginia Union. But before Wallace could even enroll at Virginia Union, he had to go the JUCO route to pull his grades up.
After two years at Cuyahoga Community College, Wallace then went to VUU where he helped lead the team to a Division II Final Four. But due to the lack of competition in Division II, Wallace went undrafted in 1996 and even travelled overseas for a tryout with an Italian team. He would eventually sign with the Washington Bullets and would work his way into a starter. Wallace’s career would really take off when he joined the Pistons in 2000 and he would go on to win four Defensive Player of the Year Awards, an NBA championship and may possibly be inducted into the Hall of Fame one day.