Beginning with Kevin Garnett in 1996, NBA teams used nearly 40 draft picks on players who had chosen to forgo college basketball altogether in order to go straight to the pros. Many of these players were able to reach their full potential and become stars and franchise cornerstones in the NBA, but many others were incapable of making it at the NBA level. So while players like Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and LeBron James have all successfully made the jump from preps to pros, there are a multitude of others who have become cautionary tales among high schoolers taken in the NBA Draft.
As a part of the collective bargaining agreement reached in 2005, high schoolers became ineligible for the draft, as it became a requirement for players to be at least 19 years of age and one year removed from high school graduation. This mandate essentially required top prep players to spend a season playing collegiate basketball, though some players have opted to play overseas until reaching the minimum requirements for draft eligibility.
There were many reasons for the rule change, but it was certainly a consideration that so many high schoolers had declared eligibility for the draft and had failed so miserably that they were quickly out of the league. Over the decade-long period in which many high schoolers attempted to make the leap, there were far too many instances of players with incredible potential not being able to last as a pro.
Though the list of prep players taken in the draft includes four or five future Hall of Famers, the list of failed draftees is far longer. When considering the following players that appear on this list of high school draft busts, the position of the draft pick will play a significant role in determining just how big of a bust the pick turned out to be. Teams with a pick in the first five should expect to get an All-Star caliber player, not someone who is able to just be a serviceable starter or a solid option off of the bench. Similarly, a player picked in the latter portion of the draft is less likely to be considered a bust given the reduced expectations on players selected in those positions.
In this list, failing to meet expectations absolutely matters. While a player may have ultimately had a long NBA career, the fact that they were taken with such a high draft pick factors into identifying them as a bust. For example, had the Wizards taken Kwame Brown in the second round of the draft, he would draw far less criticism than he has as the first pick of the draft. This includes injuries and other unforeseen circumstances that often derail the careers of NBAers.
*All stats taken from Basketball-Reference.com.
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15 Gerald Green
Green saw his stock slide in the 2005 NBA Draft despite possessing the exceptional athleticism that makes him fun to watch to this day. Taken by the Boston Celtics with the 18th pick of the draft, Green failed to make much of an impact on a team that was lacking in talent at the time. The Celtics knew they had drafted a project, but believed that Green had the tools to become a star in the league.
After being traded to Minnesota in the package that delivered Kevin Garnett to Boston, Green bounced around the league before finding himself out of work stateside at the end of the 2009 season. This led Green to a two-year stint in Russia, and he has since returned to the league but has yet to find a consistent role with any team that he has played for. He has played for seven different NBA franchises since being drafted, and while he is great highlight reel material, he has never quite lived up to the tantalizing talent he possesses.
14 Ousmane Cisse
Cisse, a 6’9” power forward out of Mali, played his high school basketball in Alabama before declaring for the 2001 NBA Draft. He was taken in the second round (46th overall) by the Denver Nuggets, but never played a single minute of NBA basketball. He spent some time with the Harlem Globetrotters, the USBL and the D-League, but was never able to stick with any of the NBA teams that took a flier on him after he declared out of high school. As a second-round pick, Cisse had reduced expectations and is therefore considered less of a bust than some of the other players on this list who actually contributed at the NBA level.
13 Korleone Young
Young’s failure as an NBA player became symbolic of the risks inherent in allowing high schoolers to declare for the draft. After a standout prep career, Young was taken 40th overall by the Detroit Pistons, appearing in just three games for the team before being released. Young went on to play in the IBL, Australia, the CBA, Russia and China, but he was never able to make a mark on the NBA despite his status as one of the country’s best prep players at the time.
12 Darius Miles
Miles was actually one of the more immediately successful prep-to-pros players, as the small forward contributed to the Los Angeles Clippers right away after being taken with the third overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft. Though he had a lot of success initially, his performance plateaued over his first four seasons in the league, but a trade to the Portland Trail Blazers helped to increase his productivity. In the midst of his best season, however, Miles suffered a knee injury that would effectively end his career. In total, Miles played in parts of just eight seasons in the NBA, averaging 10.1 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Though Miles’ numbers were solid and the injury was hardly his own doing, his status as the third overall pick qualifies his career as a bust.
11 Eddy Curry
Curry appears on this list not because he was unable to have a productive NBA career (he did), but rather because he failed to live up to his prodigious talent after declaring for the NBA Draft out of high school. The 7-footer was taken fourth overall by the Chicago Bulls, and was expected to be part of a dominant big-man pairing that included fellow 2001 draftee Tyson Chandler. While Curry’s ability to score is undeniable, his lack of interest when it came to rebounding was a major source of frustration for his coaches throughout his pro career. While his 11-year NBA career saw him average 12.9 points and 5.2 rebounds, Curry was never the star that so many believed he would be when he entered the draft in 2001. He spent the majority of his career putting up numbers on bad teams, and he was a key player on just one team that finished the regular season above .500 (the 2004-05 Chicago Bulls).
10 Sebastian Telfair
The Lincoln High School product never quite lived up to the hype that surrounded him as a prep player. Telfair spurned a commitment with the University of Louisville and Rick Pitino to go straight to the pros, and ultimately bounced all over the league during his 10-year NBA career. He never lasted more than two seasons with any single team, and he has played for eight different teams so far, which doesn’t include the two separate stints with teams in China. The 13th overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft, Telfair has career averages of 7.4 points and 3.5 assists per game.
9 Martell Webster
It’s hard to call a guy who has carved out a role on a playoff team a bust, but the fact that Webster was selected as a high-lottery pick out of high school suggests expectations much greater than that of a rotation piece. Taken by the Portland Trail Blazers with the sixth pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, Webster is one of the last high schoolers to be taken with a lottery pick, and while he has proven to be a serviceable NBAer, he has hardly performed at the level expected out of a top-6 pick in the draft. Over ten NBA seasons, Webster has averaged 8.7 points and 3.1 rebounds per game, and it appears that he will earn his third trip to the playoffs this season with the Washington Wizards.
8 James Lang
Lang, a second-rounder taken by the then-New Orleans Hornets, bounced around NBA rosters primarily on 10-day contracts after skipping college to declare for the 2003 NBA Draft. His pro career included stints in the USBL, the D-League, the ABA, Spain and Israel, but an NBA career never developed for Lang. His career ended in 2009 after he suffered a stroke shortly after being waived by the Utah Flash of the D-League.
7 Jonathan Bender
Bender showed some brief flashes of the talent that made him the fifth overall pick of the 1999 NBA Draft during his pro career. Taken by the Toronto Raptors and then traded to the Indiana Pacers, Bender played just 262 games over parts of eight seasons with the Pacers and New York Knicks. An athletic 7-footer, Bender’s right knee betrayed him and kept him out of the NBA for three full seasons before an attempted comeback with the Knicks in 2009. Over the course of his NBA career, Bender owns averages of 5.5 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
6 Ricky Sanchez
If the name Ricky Sanchez is unfamiliar it should come as no surprise. After all, the 35th pick of the 2005 NBA Draft never saw a minute of NBA action after bypassing college for the pros. Sanchez, a product of the IMG Academy in Florida, was taken by Portland and traded to the Denver Nuggets on draft day. The 6'11" forward has had his rights traded several times since, but has never played professionally beyond the D-League, the CBA or the BSN of Puerto Rico.
5 DeSagana Diop
Diop had a 12-year NBA career despite being a limited offensive player, as the Senegalese center was able to use his defensive abilities to carve out a role on NBA rosters. The eighth pick of the 2001 NBA Draft out of famed Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, Diop spent four seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers before spending time with Dallas (two different stints), New Jersey and Charlotte. Diop’s career averages of 2.0 points and 3.7 rebounds per game are not all that impressive, but he was highly regarded for his interior defense during his time in the NBA.
4 Robert Swift
Swift serves as perhaps the most cautionary tale of anyone on this list, as the years following his failed pro career have been marked by troubling run-ins with the law. Knee injuries initially derailed his pro career, and though he attempted to make a comeback, he lasted just four years in the NBA, averaging 4.3 points and 3.9 rebounds during that time. Since the end of his pro career, Swift has been arrested several times and was once found living in the home of an alleged dealer during a police raid. Swift’s most recent arrest came in early 2015, when he was arrested for his involvement in an armed home invasion.
3 Ndudi Ebi
Ebi, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2003, lasted just two seasons in the NBA before being released by the club in 2005. He appeared in just 19 games over those two seasons, scoring a total of 40 points while collecting 19 rebounds. The Timberwolves even tried to obtain an exemption from the NBA that would allow the team to send Ebi to the D-League despite the fact that Ebi was technically entering his third year as a pro. The NBA denied the request and Ebi was released. He was picked up by the Mavericks, but only lasted five preseason games before again being released. Ebi has since embarked on a long professional career playing overseas, but he certainly never made any sort of mark on the NBA during his brief time in the league.
2 Leon Smith
Smith, a power forward taken in the first round of the 1999 NBA Draft, never played a game for the team that acquired his rights in a draft-night trade. After being taken by the San Antonio Spurs with the 29th pick, the Dallas Mavericks traded for the rights to Smith, but the power forward out of Martin Luther King High School in Illinois dealt with psychological issues that led to his release in February of 2000. Though Smith made a brief comeback in 2002 in which he played in 14 games with the Atlanta Hawks, he was never able to find a role in the NBA game despite his first-round talent.
1 Kwame Brown
It is sort of unfortunate that Brown finds himself atop this list, as he was able to enjoy a lengthy and modestly successful pro career of 12 seasons with seven different teams. The fact remains, however, that Brown was the top overall pick and was anointed by Michael Jordan as the “Next Big Thing” back in 2001. Though Brown had a nice pro career, he never came close to living up to the expectations of a top overall pick, averaging just 6.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game over the course of his time in the NBA.
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