The prep-to-pro process is, essentially, a crapshoot. Even general managers, coaches, and personnel men who have been studying the game for decades don’t know what they are getting whenever they draft a high school phenom. For every LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or Kevin Garnett, there is a Korleone Young, Ndubi Ebi or Ousmane Cisse (You are forgiven if you’ve never heard of any of the last three players).
Those two sets of players represent the extremes and are the far ends of the spectrum of high school phenoms. Most of these players settle into journeyman or solid NBA careers such as JR Smith, Kendrick Perkins or Al Harrington. We all know how the careers of the NBA stalwarts turned out so let’s take a closer look at those who didn’t quite make it.
This list is comprised of great high school players who flamed out in the pros for whatever reason. It could have been due to injuries, off-court problems, or they simply were not good enough to stick in the NBA. This list also is not strictly players that skipped college and jumped straight to the pros as there are also some NCAA All-Americans who flamed out early in their pro careers.
This should serve as a warning to active NBA players who were hot stuff in high school/college but had a rough going in the NBA. Could Anthony Bennett or Jahlil Okafor make this list one day? I wouldn’t rule it out, but for now, here are 15 former basketball high school phenoms who were done by 25.
15 Jay Williams
Jay-Dub was supposed to be the next great NBA point guard based off his stellar amateur career. He was the New Jersey Player of the Year in high school and played in the McDonald’s All-American Game. He then took his talents to Duke where he experienced immediate success. He was the National Freshman of the Year, won a national title as a sophomore and was the college player of the year as a junior. Having accomplished everything there is to accomplish in college, Williams declared for the 2002 NBA Draft and was taken second overall by the Bulls. After just one season, Williams’ career came to an end following a motorcycle accident in Chicago.
Williams was forbidden by his contract terms to ride a motorcycle, did not possess a motorcycle license and was not wearing a helmet during the crash. He had multiple comeback attempts but would never play in another game after the age of 21. Williams is currently a broadcaster with ESPN.
14 Andrew Bynum
Bynum attended three different high schools but was a star at St. Joseph High School in New Jersey. He averaged 22 points, 17 rebounds and 5 blocks as a senior and then bypassed an offer from UCONN to jump straight to the NBA. He was the 10th overall pick by the Lakers in 2005 and became the youngest player to appear in a game in NBA history as he made his debut at 17 years old. After some growing pains, Bynum appeared to be on his way to stardom as he won two NBA titles and was an All-Star before the age of 25.
However, in 2012 he was traded to the 76ers but a knee injury prevented him from ever playing with them. He returned to play 26 listless games for the Cavs and Pacers, but it was clear that Bynum was done. At 30 years old, Bynum should probably still be in the NBA but injuries did him in and he’s kept a low profile since leaving the game.
13 Reggie Harding
Who? Reggie Harding is certainly no household name but he did make history in 1962. That year he became the first player in NBA history to be drafted out of high school as he was taken by the Detroit Pistons. Harding was a talented 7-footer and averaged a double-double during his first two seasons but struggled with off-court issues. He had numerous legal problems and was suspended his entire third season while in jail. He also allegedly carried a gun in his gym bag and battled a drug addiction throughout his life. Harding ended up playing just four seasons and finished his career in the ABA at the age of 25.
When he was 30 years old in 1972, Harding was shot and killed at a Detroit intersection. Harding had a tumultuous life but his final act of indignity came during his funeral and burial:
Reggie Harding's grave was too short for his 7-0 casket to fit into. So he was buried at an angle, putting an end to his twisted life. pic.twitter.com/sedGJ5J0yP— Branden Hunter (@JustCallmeBHunt) September 19, 2017
12 Darius Miles
The legend of Darius Miles began in high school when he was a camp counselor at Michael Jordan’s summer camp and played MJ in a game of one-on-one. Jordan predictably won but Miles made his presence felt by blocking the G.O.A.T.’s shot. Miles would then win the Illinois Mr. Basketball award in 2000 and was often compared to the player who won the same award five years prior, Kevin Garnett. Miles then became the highest-drafted high school player in NBA history when he was taken third overall by the Clippers in 2000. Miles oozed potential but was never seem to put everything together on the court during his brief NBA career.
He played for three teams before recurring knee injuries forced him to retire at the age of 24. Despite an independent doctor saying that Miles’ knee injury was career-ending, he somehow managed to stage a brief return in 2009. He played 34 uneventful games with the Grizzlies and then retired for good.
11 Lenny Cooke
Just as Leroy Smith will forever be known as the guy who beat out Michael Jordan for the varsity team; Cooke will forever be known as the guy who was ranked above LeBron James in high school. Cooke was a dominant player in the NYC area and was the MVP of the 2000 Adidas Camp. But, he was also two years older than everyone else in his class and that edge certainly helped him on the court. Cooke actually had to sit out his senior year of high school because he was too old to play and that was the beginning of his downfall. James would overtake him as the top prospect and Cooke was confined to playing pickup games. Cooke would go undrafted in the 2002 NBA Draft and a Summer League stint with the Celtics was the closest he ever got to actually playing in a game. At 23 he tore his Achilles’ tendon while playing in the Philippines and after re-tearing it again two years later, he retired.
10 Dajuan Wagner
In 2001, Wagner became the 18th male in history to score 100 points in a high school basketball game. That was just one of his many accomplishments at Camden High School in New Jersey as he also broke the state’s all-time scoring record. He was one-and-done under John Calipari at Memphis and was billed as a bigger, stronger Allen Iverson when he entered the 2002 NBA Draft. However, that is when Wagner’s body started to fail him as he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and wound up having half his colon removed. He played in just 103 NBA games with his last stint coming in 2006 as he played one game for the Warriors. Wagner’s NBA career ended at the age of 23 and even though he had bundles of unfulfilled potential; he at least has his healthy.
9 Jonathan Bender
Anytime you can break a Michael Jordan record you instantly became known around basketball circles and that’s what Bender did in 1999. The Mississippi native was invited to the McDonald’s All-American Game and scored the most points in the event’s history which broke Jordan’s record from 1981. He then decided to skip college and entered the NBA draft where he was selected fifth overall.
Bender would struggle with injuries his entire career and missed 60 percent of his team’s games over the first seven seasons of his career. He retired at the age of 24 in 2005 and sat out the next three years. Then he decided to give basketball one more try and came back with the Knicks in 2009-10. After an unproductive 25 games, Bender retired for good. Plagued with injuries his entire career, Bender then went into the medical business and created a medical device called the JBIT MedPro that pulled in over $500,000 in revenue in its first year on the market.
8 Clark Kellogg
Yes, that Clark Kellogg. Kellogg is regarded as one of the greatest high school players in Ohio history and has a record that not even LeBron James can touch. Kellogg had 51 points and 24 rebounds in Ohio’s state championship game in 1979 and both marks are still records today. After three years at Ohio State, Kellogg then turned pro and was the eighth overall pick of the 1982 draft by the Pacers. Kellogg was an immediate success as he became the 10th rookie in NBA history to average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. After three seasons of nearly averaging a double-double, knee problems began to plague Kellogg and they ended up cutting his career short after five seasons. He missed only nine games due to injuries through his first three seasons combined, but played in just 24 games over his last two seasons combined. Kellogg played his last game at the age of 25 in 1986 and has been in broadcasting ever since then.
7 Luther Wright
Wright played alongside Bobby Hurley and under Bob Hurley Sr. at the basketball powerhouse, St. Anthony High School in New Jersey. Wright stayed at home for his choice of higher education as he then became the first McDonald’s All-American to go to Seton Hall. The Utah Jazz then drafted Wright in the first round of the 1993 NBA Draft as a replacement for the retiring Mark Eaton. At 7’2”, Wright had a similar game to the shot-blocking monster, Eaton, but Wright’s personal problems soon took over his life. Midway through his rookie year, police found Wright at a highway rest area smashing car windows and banging trash cans. After his rookie year, Wright then entered a mental institution and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
He would never play another game after his rookie year with the Jazz but the story doesn’t end there. For some reason, Utah’s front office gave Wright a Bobby Bonilla-type contract that paid him $153,000 annually for 25 years! Thus, the 2017-18 season marks the last of those 25 years and Wright is still on Utah’s payroll for the current season!
6 Robert Swift
In a way you could say that Swift was a unicorn before Kristaps Porzingis. Of the 44 players who have gone the prep-to-pro route, Robert Swift remains the only white player to be drafted straight out of high school. Swift transformed a small California high school with an enrollment of 500 people into a national powerhouse and top-25 ranked team. He initially committed to playing at USC but then declared for the 2004 NBA Draft where he was selected 12th overall by Seattle. Swift struggled with injuries, performance and off-court issues during his five years with Seattle/OKC. He last appeared in the NBA at the age of 23 in 2009 and it’s been all downhill since then. He’s been arrested multiple times including for drugs and an armed home invasion but got one last shot at the age of 30 in 2016.
He had a tryout with the Warriors’ G-League affiliate thanks to the team’s GM, Bob Myers, being Swift’s former agent. However, Swift couldn’t make the roster and it appears his basketball career is over.
5 Bobby Hurley
Hurley had as good an amateur career as possible and it started while in high school. He played under his dad at the fames St. Anthony High School in New Jersey. Hurley won a state championship in all four years and then headed to Durham, NC and Duke University. In college he was a two-time national champion, the Final Four Most Outstanding Player and even scrimmaged against the Dream Team in 1992. Hurley was then the seventh overall pick by the Kings in 1993 but it was all downhill from there.
Just 19 games into his NBA career, Hurley was nearly killed in a car accident while returning home after a game. He fractured his back, had lung injuries and suffered broken ribs. Hurley’s rookie season was over as he spent the rest of the season in a hospital and rehabbing. He was just 22 years old at the time, and while he came back to play four more seasons, he was a shell of his former self. Hurley is, statistically, the worst player in NBA history but has crafted out a solid coaching career in college.
4 James Lang
Five players were drafted straight out of high school in the 2003 draft. The first was LeBron James and the last was James Lang. Nicknamed “Big Baby”, Lang was an Alabama native and stirred up memories of fellow Alabamian, Charles Barkley. Lang was taken by New Orleans in June of 2003 but was waived just six months later. Despite being just 20 years old, the New Orleans GM said that Lang didn’t show enough potential to stick on the roster and he embarked on a career in the minor league circuits. Three years later Lang got another chance at the NBA as he was signed by the Wizards. However, the 23-year-old would play just 11 games and score just 11 points before being waived. More overseas and D-League stints followed for Lang who played until 2009. That year, the 26-year-old suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed and ended his basketball career.
3 Leon Smith
Smith was a top prospect who emerged from Chicago in the late 90s and was often compared to other Windy City natives, Antoine Walker and Juwan Howard. After starring at Martin Luther King High School, Smith became the first and only prep-to-pro to be drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in 1999. He was taken in the first round and was in the same Spurs rookie class as Manu Ginobili who went in the second round. Smith was traded on draft day to the Mavericks but was never mentally prepared to play in the NBA. He was admitted to a psychiatric ward as a rookie and was released before ever suiting up for Dallas. He would go on to join the Hawks and SuperSonics but last played at the age of 23 in 2004. His entire NBA career consisted of 15 games, 33 points scored and $1.45 million in salary.
2 Greg Oden
Only two people have been named the high school player of the year twice by USA Today: LeBron James and Greg Oden. Oden also won three state championships at Lawrence North High School in Indiana alongside future OSU teammate, Mike Conley. Indiana is one of the basketball hotbeds of the United States and many expected Oden to be the state’s greatest NBA player since Larry Bird. However, a litany of injuries submarined any chance of a long and productive pro career. Knee microfracture, a chipped kneecap, a second microfracture, a fractured patella and a third microfracture are just some of the injuries he dealt with in the NBA. Oden makes Joel Embiid look like AC Green. Oden’s last NBA season came when he was 25 in 2013-14 and he played in 23 games for the Miami Heat. Oden had a brief NBA comeback attempt in 2015 but had nothing more than some team workouts. He is now a student assistant coach at Ohio State.
1 Javaris Crittenton
A former high school teammate of Dwight Howard in Atlanta, Crittenton won two state championships and was named the Mr. George Basketball. More than just an athlete, Crittenton also had a 3.5 GPA in high school which led to him enrolling at Georgia Tech. After one season with the Yellow Jackets, Crittenton put his name in the 2007 NBA Draft where he was hand-picked by Phil Jackson to be the Lakers point guard of the future. Crittenton wouldn’t find the same success in the pros than he did as an amateur, but he became infamous after joining the NBA. First was the bizarre Wild, Wild West showdown with Gilbert Arenas in a Wizards locker room. Then came the manslaughter conviction for shooting and killing a mother of four. The woman wasn’t Crittenton’s intended target but the penal system doesn’t care as he was sent to prison in 2015 and will serve 23 years. Crittenton’s NBA career ended at 21 but he lost much more than that afterwards.
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