Throughout the years, a number of individuals have bypassed the college ranks and made a successful transition to the NBA game. At the same time, there have been a fair number of players who were either drafted late in the second round with non-guaranteed contracts or not at all, crushing their childhood dreams. There are some players who have managed to eventually make their way to the NBA through a long and challenging route of skipping college to play overseas, thinking that it would prepare them better for life as a professional.
Depending on how you want to define "prep-to-pro," some consider Reggie Harding as the first player to be the first high schooler drafted into the NBA without playing a minute of college ball. However, the rule back in 1962, similar to that of today, was that a player had to be at least one year removed from his high school graduation year, meaning Harding had to spend a year playing in the minor league system. On the other hand, for those that went straight from their prom to the ABA-NBA, then Hall of Fame big man Moses Malone would be your man.
It wouldn't be until 1995 when the prep-to-pro idea started to become a yearly epidemic as Kevin Garnett started a tidal wave of young talent entering the NBA, whether they were ready or not. In 2005, a record nine high school seniors would enter their name into the NBA Draft, with Martell Webster being selected sixth and Amir Johnson going fifty-sixth. It would be the final year that high schoolers could go directly from senior high to the NBA.
Recently there have been talks about once again allowing high school grads to go directly to the NBA, whether it be in the best interest of the league or the players themselves. Our list of 20 individuals below provides a decent argument on both sides of the coin for those that have had success and those that failed. There are plenty of players who could have made the cut, one way or the other, however, our measuring stick is based on how they fared during their first two seasons, which had they gone to college would have been their freshman and sophomore seasons.
20 Not Ready: Ousmane Cisse
Selected by the Denver Nuggets with the 46th pick in the second round of the 2001 draft should have been a sign to the big man from Mali that he wasn't ready for the NBA, or at least teams didn't believe that he was. Outside of Alabama, where he attended high school, not many knew who Ousmane Cisse was. Of the five prep-to-pro players selected that summer, Cisse was least known, the least talented and the only one of the group to never suit up for an NBA game.
After being noticed during a junior national team event in Paris, Cisse's world was filled with scouts, coaches, agents all filling his head with ideas that he was ready to move on to play with the big boys when he clearly could have used some fine-tuning in the NCAA. Instead of fulfilling his hoop dreams in the NBA, Cisse would find himself traveling the world, playing with the Harlem Globetrotters, in the NBDL and the Israeli League.
19 Ready: Tyson Chandler
During his time, Tyson Chandler was one of, if not the most sought-after high school players of his generation. A four-year varsity player, the seven-footer became a two-time California Mr. Basketball and received offers from every big-time NCAA program. Rather than step onto campus, Chandler would walk across the stage as the second overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. Instead of staying in his hometown of California and playing for the Clippers, Chandler would team up with fellow high school star Eddy Curry as part Chicago's "Baby Bulls" rebuilding project.
Splitting time backing up both the power forward and center spots during most of his rookie season, Chandler earned his playing time as a defensive presence, leading the team in blocks, while averaging roughly six points and five rebounds. In his second season, Chandler would basically take over the starting center role, bumping up his stats across the board, proving to be the more valuable of Chicago's two prep-to-pro players.
18 Not Ready: Jeremy Tyler
In the 11th grade, LeBron James wanted to join the NBA ranks. Jeremy Tyler did as well. Whereas James finished his high school career, Tyler decided to head overseas to start his professional career. Instead of staying in North America and eventually suiting up for Rick Pitino and the University of Louisville, Tyler was moving from Israel to Japan to start his second season of collecting a paycheque to play basketball. After leaving high school in 2009, Tyler would be drafted by the Charlotte Bobcats with the 39th pick but would be passed on to the Golden State Warriors later that evening. Before the Warriors became the team that we all know now, Tyler would start 23 games in his rookie season, averaging 13.5 minutes, 4.9 points and 3.3 rebounds, the best stat line of his short three year NBA career.
17 Ready: Rashard Lewis
Before Rashard Lewis became a focal point for the Seattle SuperSonics, he was coming off of the bench as part of the second unit. That role would last only two seasons as the 6'10" forward from Alief Elsik High School as he quickly proved to Paul Westphal and Nate McMillian that he was worthy of more minutes and a more prominent role. After averaging only seven minutes a game during his rookie season, Lewis would see his playing time increase to nearly twenty minutes a night in his second year.
The increase in court time resulted in an obvious increase in stats and shooting percentages. More importantly, it meant that Lewis would be on the floor for more meaningful minutes. After nine years with the Sonics, Lewis would sign a big money sign and trade deal with the Orlando Magic, eventually helping the club to an NBA Finals appearance against the LA Lakers. A stop in Washington and New Orleans would take place before the current captain of the BIG3's Three-Headed Monsters eventually finished his career with the Miami Heat.
16 Not Ready: Korleone Young
In 1998, the Detroit Pistons took a chance on the power forward from Hargrave Military Academy. At 6'7", 215lbs, Korleone Young was able to dominate his high school opponents with his power, size, and athletic ability. Those traits didn't carry over to his NBA career. Regardless of the pleas from his former coach at Wichita East High School and numerous offers from top NCAA programs, Young followed the advice of those who filled his head with dreams of NBA spotlights and riches.
For a youngster, a $300,000 contract can be considered "riches", but the 15 minutes that he played over the course of three games and a single season aren't necessarily the definition of "spotlight". After being released by the Pistons, the 76ers were willing to give Young a chance as part of their summer league squad, but then his NBA dream flamed out. A few years of minor league ball followed by a couple of stops overseas in China and Israel would cap of Young's professional basketball career.
15 Ready: Monta Ellis
In 2005, the Mississippi native was among the top three players in the nation as a high school senior. Rather than joining the Mississippi State Bulldogs, Monta Ellis was sweating it out on draft night as he continued to sit while his peers Martell Webster, Andrew Bynum, Gerald Green, and C.J. Miles all heard their names called before him. As a rookie, Ellis found himself playing limited minutes under Warriors coach Mike Mongomery, but as a second-year player with coach Don Nelson at the controls, Ellis exploded. After getting minimal time in his first season, Ellis would become the Warriors' leader in minutes played and total points. As a result, the young shooting guard would be named the league's Most Improved Player. Despite being one of the league's most prolific scorers during most of his 12-year career, he would never be acknowledged with any further individual awards.
14 Not Ready: Leon Smith
The San Antonio Spurs have a history of turning late-round draft picks into usable commodities. Some may say that since they traded the 6'10" forward from Chicago shortly after his name was announced that there could be a loophole in that thought. Either way, Leon Smith proved he wasn't ready for the NBA regardless of which name was on the front of the jersey. While he may have physically been on par with other NBA players, mentally and emotionally he was not. Psychological issues took over the 29th pick from the 1999 draft, leading to hospitalization. Smith would later be cleared to play in various minor leagues around the world and eventually even suited up for the Atlanta Hawks and Seattle SuperSonics for a total of 104 minutes that were relatively meaningless to most, but a sign of perseverance paying off for the former prep-to-pro draftee.
13 Ready: Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard has been the textbook definition of a "man-child," both in a good and bad way, since he entered the NBA as the Orlando Magic's first pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, ahead of NCAA Player Of The Year, Emeka Okafor. Coming from Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, Howard was immediately compared to former Magic big man Shaquille O'Neal as both were larger-than-life individuals both on and off the court. Although Howard would lose out on the Rookie Of The Year award to Okafor, the current Washington Wizard big man has had a far more memorable career, one that is arguably Hall Of Fame-worthy.
Averaging a double-double every year of his career including 13.9 PPG and 11 RPG during his first two years, Howard helped lead Orlando to the playoffs in his second season. As for Okafor, although he won the Rookie of the Year award, his team would never reach the playoffs and his career would last only nine seasons (plus a few games last year).
12 Not Ready: Ndudi Ebi
After striking gold with one high school star, the Minnesota Timberwolves hoped that luck would be on their side once again when the drafted Ndudi Ebi with the 26th pick in 2003. Being that Ebi would suit up for only 19 games in his NBA career, it is obvious that such was not the case. After being named a McDonald's A.A. and recruited by the Arizona Wildcats, Ebi followed some questionable advice saying he was ready to enter his name into the draft based on his potential. Sadly that potential was nowhere close to being reached.
Yes, he had an 18-point, eight-rebound, career-high stat line in a blowout game against the Spurs in his second season, a game which had better final numbers than his rookie season combined. However, that would be his final NBA game (and a non-bearing, late-season game) and Ebi would soon find himself collecting passport stamps as he has played for 20 different international teams since 2007.
11 Ready: Kobe Bryant
After basically handcuffing the Charlotte Hornets into trading him to the L.A. Lakers, the future five-time NBA champion wouldn't become a full-time starter until he turned 20. By that point, Kobe Bryant would already be an All-Star. Even though he would have 150 games under his belt by the end of his second season, Bryant would play a backup role for the first two years of his career as Coach Del Harris was playing things safe, trying not to throw the youngster into the fire right away. However, Kobe proved to be more than ready with the playing time he received as a teenager. After his sophomore season, the Black Mamba proved to be worth everything that the Lakers and the NBA were ready to offer him as he would go on to become one of the greatest in team and league history.
10 Not Ready: James Lang
Before the Golden State Warriors proved that it is possible to win without a big man, there was still a need for some size in the paint during the early 2000s. Standing 6'10", 285lbs, James Lang certainly fell under the definition of size. Unfortunately for the 40th pick in the 2003 draft, all of that size didn't amount to much value when the talent level didn't match. Luckily for the New Orleans Hornets, second-round draftees do not have guaranteed contracts, which allowed them to take a late minimal risk pick.
Coming out of Birmingham, Alabama's Central Park Christian High School, Lang would never pull on a Hornets jersey, as he would be waived by December. Four years later, Lang would actually find himself playing NBA minutes for the Washington Wizards, appearing in 11 games for a grand total of 55 minutes, 11 points and 11 rebounds. Sadly a stroke would derail any further hopes of a basketball future.
9 Ready: Tracy McGrady
At one point, Tracy McGrady, the former USA Today National Player of the Year was considering playing for the University of Kentucky. Then the NBA dream erased any thoughts of being the BMOC. Drafted by the Toronto Raptors with the ninth pick in 1997, the small forward that was slept on prior to his blowout performance at the Adidas ABCD Camp would soon find himself questioning his decision to turn pro. Living in a new country and hardly playing for a team that was the worst in the league, T-Mac would have to wait until midway through his rookie season and a coaching change before he would really get the opportunity to showcase his abilities.
Although his numbers (7.0 PPG to 9.3 PPG) didn't see a major increase between his rookie and sophomore season, his playing time (18.4 MPG to 22.6) and role on the team would. As McGrady received more time, it became obvious that he was on his way to becoming a star, unfortunately for the Raptors, that star would never shine in Toronto as the future Hall Of Famer would sign a free agent contract in Orlando after his third season.
8 Not Ready: Robert Swift
In the early 2000s, the Seattle SuperSonics were in desperate need of a big man. Names like Vitaly Potapenko, Jerome James, Calvin Booth, and Predrag Drobnjak were just a few of the options that the team rolled out to protect the paint. Not exactly household names to say the least. When the 2004 Draft came around, the Sonics found themselves holding a late lottery pick, one that they would use on the much-traveled seven-footer from California. Instead of attending USC, Robert Swift would enter the pay to play world as a potential piece to Seattle's future. Predictably, Swift's rookie season amounted to very little, playing in 16 games, totaling 15 points, five rebounds and sven blocks.
Playing time increased during his second season as minutes jumped from 4.5 to 21, leading to the obvious increase in stats. Following two more seasons with the Seattle/OKC club (he didn't play his third year due to injury), Swift would spiral into a well-documented world of personal demons and legal issues. Recently, the troubled big man has tried to get his life back on the right path and has returned to the hardwood, playing in Spain.
7 Ready: Amar'e Stoudemire
Although his 6'10", 240lb frame had yet to fill out, Amar'e Stoudemire was a (physical) man-child when he entered his name into the 2002 NBA Draft pool. Reminding many of a young Shawn Kemp, the Phoenix Suns were happy to add the youngster to their roster with the ninth pick. As the first high schooler (at that point) to be named the Rookie Of The Year, S.T.A.T. proved early that he was capable of handling the professional game. With ridiculous athletic ability and raw power, Stoudemire would follow his award-winning first season with a 20.6 PPG/9.0 RPG sophomore season that was unfortunately cut short by injury.
As a focal point of the "Seven Seconds Or Less" Suns offense, Amar'e would be rewarded for his play by being named to five of his six All-Star teams while with Phoenix. With over 900 NBA games on his resume, the toll of reoccurring knee issues would force the five-time All-NBA member to walk away from the league at the age of 33. However, Stoudemire wasn't completely finished with the game, as he has been playing in Israel and in the BIG3 League.
6 Not Ready: Kwame Brown
If you were hand-picked by the GOAT, then you must have been good and will be great. Even legendary. That's a lot of pressure to put on a kid who just finished his senior year in high school, regardless of whether or not you were named the top player in your class, one that included Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. Unfortunately, the Washington Wizards' number one pick in the 2002 NBA Draft fell far short of expectations placed upon him by management and fans. Thinking he was drafting the next Kevin Garnett, Jordan instead got a shell of the Minnesota star.
Instead of playing against his own age group at the University of Florida, Kwame Brown entered the University of Hard Knocks as his lack of physical play and maturity led to a lot of sitting on the bench. In only 14 minutes of play a night over 57 games, Brown averaged 4.5 PPG and 3.5 RPG, not exactly numbers worthy of a first overall pick. While his numbers would improve in his second and third season, let us remember that he was playing for a Wizards team that would fall short of 40 wins in a season.
5 Ready: Kevin Garnett
For all the great moments that filled Kevin Durant's career, the fact that he won only a single NBA title does not do justice to how great a player he was. Starting the modern day prep-to-pro roller coaster in the mid-'90s, KG would find himself inserted into the Minnesota Timberwolves' starting lineup midway through his rookie season and would not leave until he was traded in the summer of 2007.
At 6'11", Garnett changed the way that many viewed how a power forward played the game as he had the ability to work the low post, mid-range, transition game and even handle the rock when needed. Quickly becoming the face of the franchise due to his talent, energy and work ethic, Garnett would become an NBA All-Star by his second season, the first of his fifteen. After averaging 10 and six in his rookie year, the nine-time All-NBA member would bump his stat line to 17 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, and 2.1 BPG the following year.
4 Not Ready: Jonathan Bender
Had the Toronto Raptors used the fifth pick on either Richard Hamilton, Shawn Marion, Ron Artest, Andrei Kirilenko or taken a chance on Manu Ginobili (who in most redrafts could arguably be the first overall pick), would they have still traded for Antonio Davis? After selecting Jonathan Bender, the high school forward from Mississippi, a seven-footer in the mold of Kevin Garnett, a trade was immediately made with the Pacers.
Granted, the trade worked out better for the Raptors than for the Pacers. Perhaps if Bender played for a coach other than Larry Bird and a team that hadn't drafted a high schooler who played a similar position the year prior, he might have received more playing time, helping with the transition to the game. Bender would have to wait until his third year in Indiana before he would average more than ten minutes a game. Unfortunately for the former McDonald's MVP, his career would be cut short due to ongoing knee injuries.
3 Ready: Josh Smith
Before he declared for the NBA, Josh Smith was part of two of the greatest prep teams in basketball history. When he wasn't playing for the famed Oak Hill Academy, a team that went 38-0 on route to a National High School Championship, he would suit up for the equally as well known, AAU Atlanta Celtics. As the 17th overall pick in 2004 and for the next eight years after, Smith would play a key role for the Atlanta Hawks. After coming off the bench for the first fifteen games of his career, Smith would enter the Hawks' starting five and average around nine points and six rebounds. One of the most explosive players in the league, Smith would also become one of the Hawks best defenders at an early age, evident by becoming the youngest player in league history to block ten shots in a single game.
2 Not Ready: Lenny Cooke
One of the better basketball documentaries belongs to the former high school star who was once deemed to be a better player than peers like Amar'e Stoudemire or underclassmen LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. During the early 2000s, the three were constantly in talks of which was the better player and who would potentially change the NBA. Unfortunately for Lenny Cooke, unlike others on this list who at least heard their name announced at some point in the NBA Draft, he would be bypassed completely during the 2002 Draft.
Instead of attending North Carolina or Ohio State or St. John's, Cooke followed the advice of family, friends and street agents, all of whom were filling Cooke's head with an unfulfilled sense of reality. The closest that Cooke would get to stepping onto an NBA court would be with the Boston Celtics summer league squad. After runs with the USBL, PBA, and CBA, Cooke would be forced to retire from the game in which he was once a prep star, as multiple Achilles injuries would end his career.
1 Ready: LeBron James
Imagine that at 19-years-old, you average 20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, and 5.9 APG, while starting in all 79 games that you appear in and averaging 39.5 minutes a night. Now also take into consideration that those points, rebounds, and assists are the lowest totals you will post in your Hall of Fame career so far. Crazy, right? For everything that KG and Kobe brought to the game before LeBron James, he blew that out of the water the day that he signed up for the 2003 NBA Draft.
While many on this list had offers to go to select top-notch Universities, it almost seemed as if NCAA schools didn't even bother (they all did) recruiting The Chosen One, as they knew he was bound for the NBA. For everyone that was said to be the next Michael Jordan, LeBron has been the closest in terms of pretty much everything, except the mannerisms (Kobe got those). Oh did we forget to mention that James was wanting to enter the NBA after his 11th-grade year. Would it be crazy to assume that those same numbers he posted as a fresh-faced 19-year-old be ones that he could have put up as an 18-year-old?