In 2006, the NBA and the NBA Players Association agreed upon a new rule legislating that teams could no longer draft players straight out of high school. The rule states that players who enter the NBA draft must be at least 19 years old and at least one year removed from high school. Contrary to wide belief, this rule does not require high school basketball players to go to college. It simply says that a person is ineligible for the NBA draft until that person is 19 years old and out of high school for at least one year.
In the infancy of the NBA, the rule was that a player had to wait four years after high school, usually spent in college, before entering the NBA. It wasn’t until 1971 when it was decided that players could come straight out of high school and be drafted into the pro ranks. In 1975, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby were selected out of high school, making them the pioneer of the ‘prep-to-pro’ movement. It took 14 years for another high schooler to be drafted after Dawkins and Willoughby, when Shawn Kemp was selected out of high school. Then, in 1995, the flood gates opened. Kevin Garnett was selected first overall out of high school. The following year, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal were selected and from then on, it was commonplace to see high school players selected early and often in the NBA drafts.
The league began to get watered down and the talent was getting weaker throughout. The NBA and commissioner David Stern decided to step in and make the rule change under which the NBA currently operates. There has recently been talk of extending the age limit to 20, which would force most players to spend at least two seasons in the college ranks. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for draft eligibility, but as you will see, the list of players who skipped college is pretty impressive. Here are the 15 best high schoolers drafted into the NBA.
15. Monta Ellis
Monta Ellis grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was a McDonald’s All-American stand-out in high school. He was one of the last players to be drafted out of high school when he was selected in the second round of the 2005 draft by the Golden State Warriors. Ellis has had a very successful career thus far as he is currently the starting shooting guard for the Indiana Pacers, who were bumped out of the postseason in the first round this past season.
14. Shaun Livingston
Livingston was the 4th overall section in the 2004 draft. He suffered one of the worst injuries in recent memory when he tore up his knee in 2007. It was believed his career was over and he would possibly never walk again. Livingston overcame all odds and got himself back on the court. He is currently a major part of the Golden State Warriors and their incredible run on their way to becoming one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
13. J.R. Smith
From New Jersey, J.R. Smith was selected 18th overall in the 2004 NBA draft. He was a superstar high school player and a McDonald’s All-American. Smith has been a very good player in the league since he arrived, winning a sixth man of the year along the way. He is currently coming off the bench for the Cleveland Cavaliers and has been part of the NBA finals for two consecutive seasons. Overall, a very solid selection at 18th overall.
12. Rashard Lewis
At 6’10 with an amazing shooters touch, Lewis was one of the original stretch four big men. He was drafted in 1998 by the Seattle SuperSonics and helped them to the playoffs multiple times. Lewis was also part of the Orlando Magic team that went to the NBA championship in 2009, and then in 2013 as part of the Miami Heat, Lewis was able to finally capture his first and only NBA championship ring.
11. Amar’e Stoudemire
Amar’e Stoudemire was drafted by the Phoenix Suns in 2002 and made an immediate impact. He teamed with Steve Nash and coach Mike D’Antoni to revolutionize the way offense operates. Stoudemire was the athletic big man who ran an unstoppable pick and role with Nash as they would make multiple deep playoff runs. Amare is currently playing for the Miami Heat, and is still a very productive member of their team. He’s just not the superstar he once was.
10. Tyson Chandler
In 2001, Tyson Chandler was an extremely talented 7-foot big man coming out of high school. The Clippers drafted him second overall but he never found his way with the Clips. The 2001 draft was pretty weak overall.
After moving on to the Hornets in 2006 and ultimately with the Mavericks, Chandler found his way and became a force in the middle. Chandler was the anchor for the Mavericks team who beat the Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.
9. Jermaine O’Neal
Jermaine O’Neal helped make it popular to draft players out of high school. He was selected in the first round of the 1996 draft and played 19 seasons in the NBA. He had his best success with the Indiana Pacers in the early 2000s. O’Neal was a six-time All-Star, and also won the Most Improved Player Award in 2002. O’Neal’s biggest impact was not his stellar play, however; it was his ability to transfer straight from high school, which helped set off the influx of high school players to the NBA.
8. Dwight Howard
Dwight Howard was the first overall selection of the 2004 draft. He entered the league with the build of a super hero, and the athleticism to match. Howard was able to guide the Orlando Magic to an NBA Finals appearance in 2009 and has been a perennial All-Star for his entire career. Howard is currently a free agent and is expected to receive a max contract this offseason, after spending the last three seasons with the Houston Rockets.
7. Tracy McGrady
T-Mac was an electric player straight out of high school. McGrady was selected 9th overall by the Raptors in 1997. He would ultimately leave Toronto, and later said he regretted that decision. McGrady was a six-time All-Star, a two-time First team All-NBA selection, and he led the NBA in scoring two different seasons. It will be interesting to see if T-Mac gets voted into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.
6. Shawn Kemp
Shawn Kemp was a special case. He enrolled in college after high school but never ended up attending due to legal issues. He was drafted in 1989 by the Seattle SuperSonics, who paired Kemp with Gary Payton and went on to have stellar success, including a trip to the 1996 NBA Finals against Michael Jordan. Kemp was known for his highlight reel slam dunks and ferocious blocked shots. Kemp was a six-time All-Star and is a likely candidate for the Hall of Fame.
5. Darryl Dawkins
“Chocolate Thunder,” a nickname given to Dawkins by Stevie Wonder, was the original “prep-to-pro” player. Dawkins skipped college in 1975 and was selected 5th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers. He was a 6’11 man among boys, and I am talking about in the NBA, not his high school days. It is said that Hall of Fame guard Walt Frazier took one look at Dawkins and said, “I bet his teachers called him ‘Mr. Darryl’.” Dawkins will forever be remembered as the original prep to pro basketball player.
4. Kevin Garnett
KG was drafted 5th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he was the greatest thing that has ever happened to that franchise. Garnett is a first ballot Hall of Famer and he is ending his career with the Wolves, helping mentor their young blossoming team. Garnett has pretty much done it all in his career, from league MVP awards, NBA championships, and All-Star games to winning Defensive Player-of-the Year and the 2006 J. Walter Kennedy Sportsmanship Award. Garnett is everything you could ever want in a basketball player.
3. Moses Malone
Moses Malone is a special case in this list. He was drafted into the ABA in 1974, but once the 1975 merger happened, he became an NBA player. Malone was a 6’11 scoring and rebounding machine. He was a 12 time All-Star, three-time league MVP, one-time NBA Champion and his career spanned form 1974 all the way to 1995. Malone will likely be most remembered for his prediction of the 1983 playoffs when he forecasted his 76ers would go “fo, fo, fo” as in, they would sweep every series of the playoff (4,4,4). He was not far off on his prediction, as the Sixers went 4,5,4 on their way to the NBA championship.
2. Kobe Bryant
‘The Black Mamba’ is clearly an all-time great and one of the best prep-to-pro players of all time. Kobe was selected 13th in the 1996 draft. How many teams are kicking themselves for not picking him earlier? The team that must feel the worst is the Hornets franchise, as they actually drafted him and on draft day they traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
Bryant also set a precedent by being the first guard selected in the first round out of high school. We don’t need to get into all of Kobe’s career accomplishments, as we all know most of them by now, but we can obviously say that Kobe ranks up there with any of the all-time greats to ever play the game.
1. Lebron James
James is one of only three players to be drafted first overall out of high school, and the only non-center. He was the most highly publicized high school basketball player of all time, and he has lived up to and exceeded all the hype. James’ career is still a work in progress but he has already accomplished enough to rank him on top of this list and ranks at, or near the top of any other list of all-time great players. When his career is finally over, he will likely rank in the top 10 in all major statistical categories and will be on the very short list of greatest players of all time.
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