LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady are all examples of when the prep-to-pro process works out. These four players, and many more, skipped college to jump straight from high school to the NBA to great results. They will all be in the Hall of Fame one day and are considered some of the greatest players in NBA history.
There are other players like J.R. Smith, Kendrick Perkins and Monta Ellis who also went the prep-to-pro route and churned out serviceable NBA careers. They aren’t All-Star caliber players but they still made tens of millions of dollars and proved right in their decisions to skip college.
However, there is another group of players who were better served in going to college than skipping it. These guys peaked in high school as they were great players who just weren’t able to translate their skills to the pros. Some of these high school phenoms did decide to go to college but they still weren’t able to relive the glory from their high school days. They either flamed out in college or flamed out in the pros which means the highpoint of their basketball careers came as teenagers. We will revisit some of these players as we look at 15 high school phenoms who never made it in the NBA.
15 O.J. Mayo
O.J. Mayo AKA Grocery List was the consensus top player of the Class of 2007 and ahead of such players as Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and James Harden. It was a well-deserved ranking as the Legend of Mayo had reached epic heights by then. He was the best player on his varsity team when he was just in 7th grade. He also attracted the biggest of stars as LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony attended some of his high school games. After one year at USC Mayo joined the NBA where he wasn’t the star that many expected but was still a serviceable role player.
That is, until July 1, 2016 when he was banned from the league for two years for drugs. He says it was due to him smoking marijuana and abusing prescription drugs though many suspect some other drugs were in his system. Mayo became the first player in 10 years to be banned by the NBA. Like the last one, Chris Andersen in 2006, Mayo will get the chance to apply for reinstatement after two years.
14 DaJuan Wagner
Wagner’s hype reached epic proportions when he was billed as “a bigger, stronger Allen Iverson” right after the former Sixer won the 2001 MVP award. Wagner was the No. 3 ranked played in the Class of 2001 and had a solid year in college as he averaged over 21 PPG for Memphis. The Tigers’ coach, John Calipari, then revoked Wagner’s scholarship after the season to “force” him to go to the NBA so Coach Cal was pulling the one-and-done long before he got to Lexington. Unfortunately, once Wagner reached the NBA his body started to fail him as he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and ended up having to remove half his colon. He would play only 103 games in the NBA and his career was over by the age of 23. However, he can thank Calipari for not giving him the option of returning to Memphis as Wagner made over $8 million in the NBA and he wouldn’t have made a dime had he gotten sick while in college.
13 Jerod Ward
Everyone remembers the Fab Five of Michigan but did you know there was a “Fab Five II”? Jerod Ward was supposed to be the centerpiece of this second wave of Michigan freshmen after winning the Naismith Prep Player of the Year award in Mississippi in 1994. As the top-ranked recruit in his class, Ward was expected to be the next Chris Webber but he wasn’t even the next Juwan Howard or Jalen Rose. Hell, he wasn’t even the next Ray Jackson or Jimmy King. Ward didn’t even become a starter until his senior season and by then the luster off his Naismith award had worn away.
The closest he would get to the NBA would be an invitation to the Raptors training camp in 2002 and Ward would play everywhere from the Philippines to Japan to Lebanon during his 13-year pro career. Only two members of the Fab Five II would go on to play in the NBA: Maceo Baston and Maurice Taylor.
12 Felipe Lopez
Born in the Dominican Republic, Lopez’s family moved to New York when he was 14 and he enrolled at Rice High School in Manhattan. He was one of the most-touted players to come out of New York in years and won the Mr. Basketball USA award in 1994. Lopez stayed local with his college choice at went to St. John’s where he was solid but unspectacular. Lopez left school ranking sixth all-time in Big East history in points but when you are on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager, more was expected of him. His NBA career was even more of a letdown as he played for just four seasons and averaged 5.8 points per game. The man who was once dubbed “The Spanish Michael Jordan” reached his peak at just the age of 14.
11 Greg Oden
USA Today has named its top high school player since the 1982-83 season. Only twice has a player won the award two times: LeBron James and Greg Oden. Oden was already being called the next Patrick Ewing or the next Tim Duncan when he was just 16 years old. Oden would enroll at Ohio State where he was a dominant two-way player and led the team to the National Championship game. We all know what happened when Oden went pro as he was drafted by the Blazers first overall in 2007.
He then suffered the Portland-itis that so many other Blazers have suffered as recurring injuries kept him off the court. He played in a total of 105 games in the NBA and another 25 games in the Chinese Basketball Association. His problems off the court were worse than his problems on it as in 2014 he pleaded guilty to battery for punching his ex-girlfriend.
10 Lenny Cooke
Cooke was once the top prospect in the nation but that may have been because he was so much older than everyone else. He turned 17 at the end of his freshman year and had to sit out his entire senior year because he was too old to qualify for high school play. During a summer camp Cooke, the then No. 1 prospect, was outplayed by an unknown player named LeBron James who would then supplant Cooke as the top player in the country. Cooke declared for the 2002 NBA Draft after three different teams promised him they would draft him. Well, teams lie and Cooke went undrafted which forced him to play in minor leagues like the NBDL and USBL. Cooke was apparently so intent on going pro after high school that he never even bothered taking the SAT or ACT which are required for college.
A summer league stint with the Boston Celtics is the closest Cooke would ever get to the NBA and a pair of torn Achilles’ tendons ended his career by the age of 25.
9 Korleone Young
The top three-ranked players in the Class of 1998 all jumped straight from high school to the NBA. The top-two ranked, Al Harrington and Rashard Lewis, combined to play 32 NBA seasons and appear in over 2000 games. The third-ranked player, Korleone Young, played 3 NBA games. Young was a talented small forward from Kansas but even his high school coach was surprised he opted to skip college. "Normally, when a kid is thinking about something like this, you'll hear about it,” said Young’s high school coach. “But with Korleone, it was a total surprise.” Young would be a second round pick of the Pistons in 1998 but played a total of 15 minutes in the lockout-shortened season before being cut.
A stint with the 76ers’ summer-league team would be the next-closest Young would get to the NBA and he would toil in various minor leagues around the world. He last played, professionally, in 2005 and was arrested in 2009 for failing to appear in court for a child support hearing.
8 Sebastian Telfair
Bassy remains the only pure point guard to be drafted straight out of high school and the movie He Got Game was loosely based on Telfair among other players. By 18, Telfair was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and just months later he was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers. But Telfair wouldn’t prove to be the Blazers point guard of the future and was nothing more than a journeyman backup during his 10 NBA seasons. He played for eight different teams and was traded six different times including in the deal that sent Kevin Garnett to Boston. Telfair also had various run-ins with the law including multiple arrests for possession of weapons. Telfair is 32 years old and last played in the NBA in 2014; however, his 40-year-old cousin, Stephon Marbury, has a better shot at rejoining the NBA than Bassy does.
7 Leon Smith
Like Antoine Walker and Juwan Howard before him, Smith was thought to be the next All-Star big man to come from Chicago. But even though he was talented, Smith had psychological issues before even joining the NBA as he suffered from neglect as a child and was moved to an Illinois foster home. Smith is the only prep-to-pro to ever be drafted by the Spurs as he was taken in the first round of the 1999 draft. He was then traded to the Mavs but never played a game due to more psychological issues.
He attempted suicide while with the Mavs after he swallowed 250 aspirin tablets and he told police “I am an Indian fighting Columbus!” Dallas would cut him and he wouldn’t make his NBA debut until 2001 with the Hawks. He played a total of 15 games in the NBA and played in now-defunct leagues such as the IBL and BSN. He last played professionally in 2007 in Argentina.
6 Damon Bailey
When Bailey was 14 years old, Indiana coach Bob Knight saw him play and said, “Damon Bailey is better than any guard we have right now. I don't mean potentially better, I mean better today.” Bailey was LeBron before LeBron and had over 40,000 people coming to watch his high school games which remains an all-time attendance record. After being named Mr. Basketball USA in 1990, Bailey joined Knight in Bloomington, Indiana. He was a very good player for the Hoosiers, was a four-year starter and left the school sixth on Indiana’s all-time scoring list. He was drafted in the second round of the 1994 NBA Draft by his hometown Pacers but it became evident that Bailey had peaked in high school as he would never see the court in the NBA.
Bailey could never live up to the hype that Coach Knight bestowed upon him and he would play in the CBA before retiring in 2003. Since then he’s spent his time in the coaching ranks in both Indiana high schools and for the Butler women’s basketball team.
5 Robert Swift
Of the 44 players who have been drafted straight out of high school, Robert Swift remains the only white player to go from prep-to-pro. He made a small Catholic high school in California one of the top 25 teams in the country and after a strong showing in the 2004 McDonald’s All-American game, Swift went pro. He was a lottery pick by the Supersonics but spent most of his first two years on the bench. A knee injury wiped out his entire third season and by the time he was healthy, the SuperSonics were becoming the OKC Thunder and Kevin Durant was the young superstar. Swift would play a total of 97 games in the NBA and experience more problems off the court.
He’s been arrested multiple times and has been charged with reckless driving, unlawful possession of a shotgun, and an armed home invasion. His last known basketball activity was a tryout with the Warriors D-League team in 2016.
4 Chris Walker
Of the 10 players who started in the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic, nine of them were either drafted or are currently in the NBA including Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. The 10th is Chris Walker who struggled as soon as he finished high school. Whether or not he actually finished high school is up for debate as he didn’t qualify academically at the University of Florida. Thus he didn’t enroll until December 2013 but was then suspended 12 more games after it was revealed that he received improper benefits while in high school. The No. 7 recruit in his class would average all of 3.7 PPG in two seasons with the Gators and declared for the 2015 NBA Draft.
Walker thought that his play in high school would warrant a draft selection in the pros but that wasn’t the case and he ended up lasting just one month as an undrafted free agent with the Rockets. He now plays for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the G-League and averaged 5.9 PPG in 2016-17.
3 Josh Selby
Selby was one of the best players to ever come out of the DMV area and he was the No. 1 player in the nation according to Rivals for the Class of 2010. Selby became the highest-ranked player to ever join Bill Self at Kansas but his college career got off to an inauspicious start after he was suspended for receiving improper benefits. Selby would start just 11 games at Kansas and the team seemed to perform better when he didn’t play. Despite his stock at an all-time low, he declared for the draft and was taken in the second round by the Grizzlies.
As it stands, Selby has played 38 games in the NBA and 31 games in the D-League although he has found some success overseas. He was a two-time All-Star in the Israeli League and at the age of 26 he could still get one more opportunity in the NBA.
2 Anthony Bennett
The fact that Bennett went to three different high schools should have been the first sign of trouble but he excelled in basketball at all three. He was the No. 1 forward in the Class of 2012 while attending Findlay Prep in Nevada. He decided to stay local and went to UNLV where he was good but played against inferior competition in the Mountain West Conference. Despite being an unathletic, overweight and undersized power forward, the Cavs thought he was worthy of the top pick of the 2013 draft.
Bennett was an unmitigated bust in the NBA and became the first No. 1 overall pick to be sent down to the D-League. He played for four teams in four seasons and even Michael Olowokandi lasted nine seasons in the NBA. Bennett ended the 2016-17 season in Turkey but was cut after his team won the championship. He’s looking at a future of second-rate foreign leagues and G-League appearances.
1 Jeremy Tyler
Tyler remains the first and only player to not only skip college to turn pro, but he skipped part of high school as well. Right after his junior prom, Tyler announced he was dropping out of school and heading overseas to start his pro basketball career. Since he was never a senior, we don’t have his senior rankings but he was ranked the 7th best junior in the nation and had college offers from UNC, Louisville and UCLA. He played one year in Israel and one year in Japan before being drafted in the second round in 2011 by Charlotte. He would spend the next three years shuffling between the NBA and the G-League and played a total of 80 NBA games. In 2014 he grew tired of the NBA’s minor league system and headed back overseas. For the last three seasons he’s played for three different teams in the Chinese Basketball Association.