When Kevin Garnett retired last week, fans around the world remembered his lasting legacy in the NBA. On the court, he was an athletic freak who could do just about anything. Off the court, he became the first high school player to get picked in the NBA draft in two decades when the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him fifth in 1995. And since KG didn’t take too long to become a force to be reckoned with, his selection opened the floodgates for a plethora of high school players hoping to hear their names called by David Stern in the annual NBA draft.
By 2006, it had become overkill, as countless high school players put their names in the draft pool, only to fail miserably in the NBA, or not play in the NBA at all. The league put its collective foot down that year, and instituted new rules that would bar almost all fresh high school graduates from applying for the draft, and it was mainly because there were so many Robert Swifts, Jonathan Benders, and Kwame Browns failing to live up to expectations as lottery picks out of high school.
Aside from Swift, Bender, Brown, and others of their ilk, there were other high school draftees who weren’t lottery picks, and likewise failed to make a splash in the NBA, if given the chance at all. Here are 15 high school draft hopefuls who should have given college ball a try, instead of foolishly taking a chance on the NBA.
15 15. JACKIE BUTLER (UNDRAFTED, 2004)
Originally part of the class of 2003, Butler first committed to Mississippi State that year, but was declared academically ineligible, forcing him to play an extra year of high school ball. Somehow, he had dropped from Top 50 to the bottom of the Top 100 in that extra year, but that still didn’t dissuade him from joining the 2004 draft instead of signing with Tennessee as planned.
Butler wasn’t drafted that year, just like you’d expect from someone who was barely among America’s top high school recruits. But he was good enough to get over 13 minutes a game at center for a bad New York Knicks team in 2005-06, and even won a championship ring with the Spurs the next season.
14 14. OUSMANE CISSE (2nd ROUND, #47, 2001)
Originally from Mali, Cisse played high school basketball in Montgomery, Alabama, where he established himself as a hard-working, athletic shot blocker at the four and the five. Playing for St. Jude HS, he averaged a triple-double as a senior – 29 points, 16 rebounds, and 13 BLOCKS a game. He was a fairly heavily-recruited player, but one thing was holding his back from NBA stardom.
Not only was Cisse listed at 6’9”-235, which wouldn’t have cut it for a 2000s power forward in most cases, he was apparently an inch or two shorter in reality. And pretty injury-prone. He was cut by Orlando, Denver, and Toronto before he could play a game for any of those teams, and spent his pro career as a Harlem Globetrotter, and ultimately a literal globetrotter who also played in the D-League, Israel, Cyprus, and France.
13 13. JAMES LANG (2nd ROUND, #48, 2003)
As he had weighed close to 400 pounds in high school, yet graduated as one of the top big man prospects in his class, the ideal route for Lang would have been to go to college, round himself into shape while playing NCAA ball, and give the NBA draft a try in a couple of years, at the very least. Instead, the 6’10” center, who was down to about 325 on the day of the 2003 draft, spurned a commitment to Louisville and got drafted late in the second round by the New Orleans Hornets.
Due to his weight issues, Lang was a mainstay of the D-League, and played a few games in Spain while waiting for an NBA team to take a chance on him. He finally got his chance in 2006 with the Washington Wizards, playing only 11 games and averaging only about five minutes a game. Sadly, his basketball career ended in 2009 when a stroke left him partially paralyzed.
12 12. LEON SMITH (1st ROUND, #29, 1999)
Playing for Chicago’s Martin Luther King HS, Smith was a long, lean, and athletic 6’10” power forward and one of the top 15 prospects in his senior class. And while he would have been an attractive recruit for any major college team, he had made it clear from day one that he had no intent of attending college, and wanted to jump from the preps to the pros.
After Smith was selected in the 1999 draft, it didn’t take long for the red flags to start flying. He never got to play for the Dallas Mavericks, who had acquired his rights from the San Antonio Spurs soon after they drafted him, and it was on account of myriad mental and psychological issues. Eventually, all he got in the NBA were a couple cups of coffee with the Atlanta Hawks (14 games in 2002) and Seattle SuperSonics (one game in 2004).
11 11. RICKY SANCHEZ (2nd round, #35, 2005)
We were tempted to include Sanchez’s fellow IMG Academy alumnus Satnam Singh in this list. But since he was only drafted in 2015 and the jury still may be out on the Indian giant, IMG will be represented by Ricky Sanchez, who was part of the last class of direct preps-to-pros hopefuls in the NBA draft. A skinny 6’11” power forward from Puerto Rico, Sanchez was a good shooter and very agile for his size, and probably had a shot at making someone’s bench in the NBA. Instead, the rights to his selection became a punch line, as they were traded from Portland to Denver, then to Philadelphia, then to Memphis, then to Miami over a course of almost six years.
While he’s known in America as the inspiration for the 76ers-centric podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, he has, at least, carved out a respectable career playing for Puerto Rico’s national team and various international leagues.
10 10. KORLEONE YOUNG (2nd ROUND, 40th, 1998)
Entering the 1998 NBA draft was an offer this Korleone should have refused. Bad Godfather puns aside, Young was a high school star in both his home state of Kansas and noted Division I player factory Hargrave Military Academy. He was highly-recruited by several college teams, but by that time, he had made up his mind and decided to try his luck in the draft.
Alas, the 1998 draft was not a particularly good one for small forward hopefuls. And no one was mistaking Young with Paul Pierce, who went 10th overall and had a stellar NBA career, or even Roshown McLeod, who went 20th and was gone from the NBA in three seasons. Young was picked 40th overall, and played only three NBA games before playing in the U.S. minor leagues and several overseas teams.
9 9. LENNY COOKE (UNDRAFTED, 2002)
Lenny Cooke was an electrifying 6’6” wingman who was often mentioned alongside Amar’e Stoudemire (9th overall in 2002) and Carmelo Anthony as one of the high school class of 2002’s finest, and once had future NBA legend written all over him. But a poor work ethic and the stigma of being owned by LeBron James at the 2001 Nike ABCD Camp caused his stock to tumble a bit.
Cooke entered the 2002 draft when his agent told him he had a solid chance of getting drafted in the first round. But when his name was not called by any one of the NBA’s 29 teams at that time, and no one showed interest in giving him a shot as a free agent, he played his rookie pro season in the USBL, and bounced around in the U.S. minor leagues and overseas pro leagues, including my country’s own Philippine Basketball Association, where he was a standout American “import.” He was only 24 when he suffered a career-ending Achilles tendon injury while playing for the Continental Basketball Association in 2006.
8 8. NDUDI EBI (1st ROUND, #26, 2003)
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ salary cap-tampering move to acquire Joe Smith in 1998 was much ado about nothing, as the former first-overall pick was as average as his name suggests. That scandal forced the Wolves to forfeit their first-round picks in 2001 and 2002, but 2003 selection Ndudi Ebi was not the way Minnesota wanted to return to the first round. Perhaps he should have honored his commitment to the University of Arizona instead.
After a rookie season where Ebi averaged less than 0.8 points in under two minutes a game, he greatly improved on those numbers in 2004-05, averaging 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds and shooting 52.4% from the field. The catch? Those numbers were posted in two games, both no-bearing season-enders where he was essentially seeing garbage time.
7 7. DEANGELO COLLINS (UNDRAFTED, 2002)
Oftentimes, it’s just best to opt for college, or junior college, should your grades and SATs not make the cut, if you’re “only” a Top 10 high school recruit. And here’s one example of why that’s invariably the best idea – Inglewood HS forward/center DeAngelo Collins.
Collins wasn’t just too raw to be taken seriously by NBA scouts; he also had a long, sordid history of disciplinary issues. And he was way too confident about his chances in the 2002 draft, where he got snubbed by all 29 teams. He might not even have had a chance of being a competent NBA reserve, as his averages from his only NBDL season read as follows – 2.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 32.4% from the field for the Florida Flame in 2004-05.
6 6. TONY KEY (UNDRAFTED, 2001)
The 2001 NBA draft attracted a lot of high school big men, though Tyson Chandler (#2 overall) was the only one who came close to living up to his billing. But what about Tony Key, who was the only one of them who wasn’t drafted?
Originally a 6’11”-275 center from Kentucky who got some major college attention, Key moved to California for his senior year in high school, and while there were some whispers he’d end up as the Denver Nuggets’ second-round pick in 2001, they elected to draft the aforementioned Cisse instead. Being ineligible to play for a Division I school, Key played decently in the junior college and NAIA scene, and traveled the world as a pro like many others in this list had.
5 5. CURTIS BROWN JR. (UNDRAFTED, 2005)
Officially coming out of Alfred E. Beach HS in Savannah, Georgia, Curtis Brown Jr. was in a unique position of sorts; he wasn’t obscure enough to be a “joke” draft hopeful, but wasn’t highly-ranked enough in his graduating class for any detailed scouting reports of him to be available to this day. We do know that he was a 6’9” power forward, and that his numbers at Beach (13.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 5.0 bpg) suggested an athletic, defensive-oriented type, but aside from those raw numbers, we know precious little about Brown, as well as what he did after junior college.
He did play for Garden City CC in Kansas after going undrafted (what else would you expect?), and he didn’t make any sort of a splash in the junior college scene.
4 4. GIEDRIUS RINKEVICIUS (UNDRAFTED, 2002)
The tallest player in this list at 7’2”, Rinkevicius originally hailed from Lithuania, and had played American high school basketball for Bridgton Academy in Maine, signing a letter of intent for the Missouri Tigers in late 2001. Reports on his high school accomplishments show him as a big-time project player, one who needed a lot of work on his game. But he went ahead and declared for the 2002 NBA draft anyway.
Rinkevicius proved that just because you’re 7’2” with brief flashes of skill, that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be drafted by an NBA team. After his NBA draft snub, Rinkevicius played for Collin County CC in Texas, and returned home to Lithuania to play professional basketball.
3 3. ELLIS RICHARDSON (UNDRAFTED, 1998)
1998 was not a good year for preps-to-pros standouts with franchise potential, though Al Harrington (25th overall) and Rashard Lewis (32nd) both had long and successful NBA careers. As we mentioned earlier, Korleone Young was a dud, but like Harrington and Lewis, he was quite attractive to college scouts. But who the heck was Ellis Richardson, and what business did he have in the 1998 draft?
Richardson was a guard from Sun Valley, California who was NOT among Southern California’s finest schoolboy players. And he grossly overestimated his chances of getting picked in the draft, only realizing he made a bad move when he didn’t get an invite to the predraft camp. Needless to say, he wasn’t selected, and he was so disillusioned that he quit basketball, started running with a bad crowd, and served time in prison in 1999 for a robbery charge.
2 2. KYLE LUCKETT (UNDRAFTED, 2005)
Curtis Brown may have been on some Division I schools' radar as a Top 500 player, but Kyle Luckett was on nobody’s radar. Heck, the kid was academically ineligible in his two years at Fort Wayne, Ind.'s South Side HS, and had only averaged 7.2 points at Racine's Horlick HS in 2002-03! He also appeared to have his share of character issues, having been suspended repeatedly while at Horlick, and ultimately dismissed despite his potential as an athletic 7’0” center.
This great big unknown was not worth the gamble for anyone in the 2005 draft, and his Eurobasket profile shows that he was homeless for most the four years following that draft, and only suited up for Hayward, California’s Chabot College in 2009-10 at the age of 24. He later played pro ball in the U.S. minor leagues and in Japan.
1 1. TAJ MCDAVID (UNDRAFTED, 1996)
One year after KG, the 1996 NBA draft had three high school players among its early entrants – Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, and Taj McDavid. We all know who those first two guys are, and NBA and college scouts also knew of them ahead of the draft. McDavid, however, was a wild card out of Palmetto HS in Williamston, S.C., and since he had dominated weak competition as a skinny 6’6”-175 wingman, no one outside of South Carolina seemed to have heard of him.
McDavid’s unexpected decision to declare for the 1996 draft did make people outside of South Carolina hear of him, and when they did, he became a national joke, a potential cautionary tale for high school studs wanting to go from the preps to the pros. And he wasn’t even a “stud” player to begin with!
As expected, McDavid wasn’t drafted, and when sports journalist Jeff Pearlman tracked him down almost two decades later and interviewed some people close to him, even his own high school coach admitted he was merely good, not great. And probably a good fit for smaller Division I schools like Furman or The Citadel, but nothing beyond. That’s gotta burn.
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