There's been an ongoing debate for years, even decades, on whether the "one and done" rule in the NBA should be lifted or if in fact, basketball players should spend even more time in college. For every teenage phenom that comes along, there are many who go into the pros at a young age and they clearly aren't ready for the added responsibilities that come with being a pro athlete.
Sometimes, it's a maturity issue, other times, players' skills are simply too raw and it's clear they could have used some more time in college or in a developmental league rounding out their game.
For this particular list, we take a look at those basketball phenoms that are termed "Prep-to-Pro," meaning that no college was deemed necessary for this or that particular player to achieve success in the National Basketball Association. There's a reason the NBA stopped letting kids straight outta high school join the league--because most have been disappointing, as this list will demonstrate time and time again.
Therefore, in most of these cases, as you shall discover, college probably would have been a good idea for the player in question. For those of us who did attend a university, we know the unmatched experience and knowledge that going to college provides a young person's mind, and life in general.
It should be noted that the tragic tales of the likes of Hank Gathers and Benji Wilson will be left off the list, as their circumstances went far beyond anything basketball related.
The 10 players listed here either went to college and saw their careers dip, or their pro career just never lived up to what they achieved in high school. Either way, they never really "made it" as a pro. Conversely, the five listed as becoming bigger stars in the pros somehow exceeded the hype that was bestowed on them coming out of high school.
20 Never Made It: Greg Oden
Greg Oden did in fact spend a year in college after being hyped up as a future superstar in the NBA. In fact, Oden was ranked as USA Today's top high school player since the 1982-83 season, which means he was ranked higher than the likes of Kevin Garnett and LeBron James. Oden lived up to his billing in college, leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to the National Championship game. He was seen as the surer thing between he and fellow top prospect Kevin Durant, whom many felt wouldn't last in the NBA due to his lanky frame. It turned out Oden was the one whose body couldn't handle the NBA, as he was seemingly hurt year after year. The Trail Blazers saw Oden's career dwindle, with his knees never being able to hold up. Meanwhile, we all know how Kevin Durant fared.
19 Never Made It: Jackie Butler
Here's a Butler that no NBA team wanted serving them. But before all that, center/power forward Butler was an excellent post player, twice being Mississippi's "Mr. Basketball" (2002 and '03). But then Jackie decided he was too good to go to the University of Tennessee and declared for the NBA Draft. Big mistake. When Butler was with the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs, a very telling comment by coach Gregg Popovich revealed the player's true nature: "Most of (Butler's) playing time in the initial part of the season is going to be in practice, learning what a work ethic is day in and day out and what it takes to play at this level."
Those Spurs went on to win the 2007 NBA title, defeating LeBron in his first Finals appearance. Needless to say they did it without Butler, who never did learn much about that work ethic.
18 Never Made It: Doug Wrenn
Wrenn was the 1998 Washington (state) high school player of the year playing for O'Dea High, a Catholic all-boys school in Seattle's famed "First Hill" district. At O'Dea, Wrenn averaged astronomical per-game-numbers for an entire season; 22 points, over eight boards and seven assists. But, Wrenn was a troubled soul, who made emotional--rather than logical--decisions, and spent an uneventful college career bouncing from UConn to Washington, so his making it to the NBA was never really in the cards. Eventually, Wrenn ran into legal troubles, thus ending his bid at the pros.
17 Better Pro: Dwight Howard
With his height, physical attributes and skill level, it's not hard to believe that Howard led his high school, the blandly named Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy to a 31-2 record and the 2004 Georgia state title. Howard opted to forego college and head straight for the draft where he was the number one overall selection by the Orlando Magic. Howard practically fulfilled the selection by taking the 2008-09 Magic all the way to the NBA Finals.
In recent years, Howard has dampened his stature as an NBA pro. At one point he might have placed higher on this list, but he'll never compete with the top 3 who became bigger. But before we get to that, here are a couple more losers:
16 Never Made It: Ndudi Ebi
Here's a perfect example of a young hoopster who should have attended the college he committed to; in Ndudi Ebi's case, it was the University of Arizona, a strong basketball program. Ebi was well regarded after leading Westbury Christian Academy to three Texas state titles, but then the forward made the crucial mistake of thinking he was better than he actually was, and skipped college. He was selected in the first round of the 2003 draft (26th overall) by the Timberwolves, but was never suited for the pros and wound up playing overseas for one obscure team after the next. It's unfortunate Ebi didn't make it in the NBA.
15 Never Made It - Sebastian Telfair
It's baffling to think that at one point, Sebastian Telfair shared a Sports Illustrated cover spot with LeBron James and the two were hyped as the two players set to take over the NBA. Telfair was arguably the most famous basketball player in the New York City area in the early 2000s. Initially, he committed to Louisville after a stellar run at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn, but extenuating circumstances prompted him to change his mind and declare for the 2004 draft.
He was selected 13th overall by the Trail Blazers and his pro career proceeded to be a never-ending shuffle. Telfair played for nine NBA teams in 10 years and spent some time overseas as well, never living up to the incredible hype.
14 Never Made It - Jack Ryan
The ironically nicknamed "Black Jack" Ryan represents the only "great white hope" of this list. Fat chance. However, Ryan did have his moment in the sun, starring at John Jay High in Brooklyn, where he averaged 26 points a game as a guard with a deadly shot during the late 1970s. Buta lack of inner motivation proved to be a distraction, and the closest Ryan ever came to the NBA was a tryout he had with the then-New Jersey Nets in 1990. But when the Nets told Ryan to hone his skills in the NBA's former minor league, the CBA, Black Jack gave up his pro playing aspirations and gave up on the game altogether.
13 Better Pro - Moses Malone
For those who think Julius "Dr. J" Erving is all that, keep in mind that Erving never won an NBA title until the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers acquired the late great Moses Malone to replace the lesser great but also late Darryl "Chocolate Thunder" Dawkins at center. Coincidentally, Dawkins also skipped college, but never became the pro on Malone's level. Malone didn't need college; his last two years in high school, his team didn't lose a single game, taking back-to-back state titles in Virginia. Instead of going to University of Maryland in 1974, Malone joined the NBA's then rival pro basketball league, the ABA, famous for its multi-colored balls and players with outrageous '70's hair styles.
Malone was a three-time NBA MVP (1979, 1982 and '83), and in 1981 took a lackluster Houston Rockets team all the way to the NBA Finals, before Larry Bird and Kevin McHale won their first title with the Boston Celtics.
12 Never Made It: Latavious Williams
Williams was a star with two different high schools in Mississippi and Texas and was ranked in the top 20 prospects of 2009. The center/power forward's other "claim to fame" is being the first player to ever skip college basketball and go directly to the minors, the NBA's Tulsa 66ers, a franchise in the former "NBA D League", now called the NBA G League. There's no big tragic story behind Williams' failures; he appears to have not been good enough, at least for any teams to believe in him to sign him and actually play him.
It could be Williams' lack of desire or competitive fire, or maybe he didn't get a chance, sometimes it's as simple as that. Williams wound up being a "Summer League" player, when real ballers want to hoop in the winter and spring.
11 Never Made It: Ousmane Cisse
When you've put on the "classic" uniform of basketball franchises like Lokomotiv Mineralnye Vody and Bnai HaSharon, who needs the Celtics or the Lakers? Yeah, right. That pretty much sums up the professional "career" of Cisse, who lead Montgomery Catholic High School in Alabama to a state title in 1999. He also set a state record for blocked shots in a game--and he did that in the very first half of his very first game! Like many of the players on this list, Cisse switched schools, finishing up at St. Jude Catholic High.
But it was never meant to be in the NBA for Cisse, despite being drafted #46 overall in the 2001 by the Denver Nuggets, as he couldn't stay healthy and bounced around, getting released by one NBA team after another until heading overseas.
10 Never Made It: Robert Swift
No, that isn't comedian Carrot Top, that's NBA flame-out Robert Swift, a great high school player that managed to get Garces High School (Bakersfield, CA) ranked in the USA Today top 25 teams during the 2002-03 season. Swift then transferred to the dully named Highland High School where he had to win a court battle to be eligible to play. Swift was going to hoop for USC, which probably would have been been the smarter decision.
Instead he went to the NBA, where he was a member of the final iteration of the Seattle SuperSonics (2007-08) before they became the OKC Thunder. Swift has swiftly faded into obscurity, fodder for lists such as this.
9 Better Pro: Kevin Garnett
When you're known by just two letters--as in "KG"--you have to be something special. And few ever played the game with such passion as Kevin Garnett, who transformed the culture of not one, but two NBA franchises. First with the Timberwolves, where he never quite had the supporting cast to go all the way, and then with the Celtics, where he teamed with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to bring the C's their 17th championship.
Dwight Howard's decision to forego college was influenced by KG, who went from high school stardom in Chicago at Farragut Career Academy directly to stardom in the pros. Such was Garnett's maturity that he was able to bypass college and still exceed expectations. Perhaps the singular flaw on KG's resume is the fact he "only" won one title; but still, KG is an all-time great.
8 Never Made It: Ronnie Fields
It is so appropriate that this entry of Fields as a "Never Was" directly follows our previous "Became Bigger"--Kevin Garnett--because the pair were actually high school teammates at Chicago's Farragut Academy. Shooting guard Fields became the first sophomore high schooler to play in the "Best of the Best" all-star game with the likes of Garnett and future NBA superstar Allen Iverson, and he justified the selection by becoming the number three all-time leading scorer in Chicago public league history. But then it all went downhill for Fields, who fractured a bone in his neck before his senior year playoffs. He was later recruited by Chicago's DePaul University, but was ruled academically ineligible. Fields subsequently went undrafted by the NBA in the late 1990s, never achieving the greatness of his teammate KG.
7 Never Made It: Leon Smith
Smith's off-the-court shenanigans are far more interesting than his fizzled pro hoops career. Smith dominated at Chicago's Martin Luther King high school as power forward/center, and was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs with the 29th overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, but was immediately traded to the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs were probably a bad fit for Smith, as they were coached by Don Nelson, an old-school type who was particularly hard on rookies. From there, it soon became clear that not all was right with Smith and he clearly wasn't ready for the rigours and responsibilities of being a professional athlete.
6 Never Made It: Damon Bailey
Damon Bailey was LeBron James before LeBron James, in the sense that he was so hyped up as a high school prospect and he drew tens of thousands of fans to see him play. When he was just 14 years old, legendary Indiana coach Bobby Knight declared that Bailey was better than any point guard his college team had. After being named Mr. USA Basketball in 1990, Knight recruited Bailey to play for Indiana. He was a good four-year starter in college, but hardly lived up to the hype he built in high school. He went in the second round of the 1994 draft to the Pacers, his hometown team. But it became clear very soon that Bailey had peaked in high school. He would eventually move on to play in the CBA before retiring in 2003.
5 Better Pro: Kobe Bryant
Bryant, the son of former NBA player Joe Bryant, was regarded as the top high school player in the entire nation in 1996 when coming out of Lower Merion High School in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore. Bryant lead the "Aces" to the Pennsylvania state title in '96, and in 2010, the school named their new gymnasium for the hoops legend. Though Bryant was drafted #13 overall by the Charlotte Hornets, of course, such an obscure franchise was beneath Kobe's destined greatness, so he promptly engineered a curious trade to the Los Angeles Lakers (for Vlade Divac?)--and five NBA titles later, the rest is history.
But Bryant's still not good enough to top this list.
4 Never Made It: Korleone Young
What happens if an high school basketball star decides to throw a "direct to the NBA Draft" party and no one decides to show? That was kind of the case with Suntino Korleone Young, whose name seems to derive from the Godfather character Santino 'Sonny' Corleone. Young is another entry on this list who was so good he starred at two high schools--and he did it in two different states; both Wichita East High School (a coed public school in Kansas) and Hargrave Military Academy (a private, all-male boarding school in Virginia).
Young's ego couldn't abide going to college, and while he did get selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 40th overall pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, his injury prone and bench-riding career soon went nowhere.
3 Never Made It: Earl Manigault
Was Manigault the original "G.O.A.T"? Perhaps, but Earl's "Goat" handle may have several other origins, including his surname ending with "-gault". At Benjamin Franklin High in New York City, shooting guard Manigault set a record by scoring 57 points in one game in the late 1950s. However, Manigault should be glad he never made it to the NBA, because he became much more famous being a "never made it" as opposed to some obscure player who rode the bench for a couple of meaningless NBA seasons.
There was actually an HBO movie made about Manigault starring Don Cheadle entitled Rebound: The Legend of Earl 'The Goat' Manigault.
2 Never Made It: Lenny Cooke
Lenny Cooke was once considered a bigger high school star than our no. 1 entry. Cooke went up against his rival in a one-on-one game in 2001 and was soundly schooled, and for some inexplicable reason, allowed that one game to determine his fate forevermore. Cooke did have good times, first at Lane High in Brooklyn and then he moved on to La Salle Academy in Manhattan.
Due to complicated eligibility issues, Cooke opted to listen to agents instead of going to college, but every team passed on him in the 2002 draft. The closest the shooting guard ever came to the NBA was playing in the Summer League for the Boston Celtics. Cooke's story is proof positive there is a very thin line between achieving athletic greatness and being mired in obscurity. Although, being unnoticed is not a problem for our final entrant...
1 Better Pro: LeBron James
Here then, is the man, the player, LeBron James, who defeated the aforementioned Lenny Cooke and derailed Cooke's career while elevating his own stature that led James to being drafted number one by Cleveland in 2003. There's not much to write about LeBron that hasn't already been published; he's one of the preeminent talents the NBA ever has, or ever will, produce. His unstoppable offensive drives, clutch defense, dominating physicality and sheer will to win are an almost incomparable combination; and only playing some great Spurs and Warriors teams in the NBA Finals over the years has prevented "The King" from owning more than three crowns at this point in his career.
Let there be no doubt; LeBron James is the greatest player to transition from high school (the coed St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, Ohio) directly to the NBA.