Nearly every kid playing basketball holds the same dream: to one day play in the NBA. The path for the lucky few blessed with the requisite level of talent is long and hard, and for most American players includes playing college basketball. Some players skipped that step, leaping straight from high school to the NBA.
Technically that was allowed for decades; players such as Connie Simmons did so in the 1940s. Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby did it in the 1970s. Yet it wasn’t until Kevin Garnett in 1995 that the modern movement of players going straight from high school to the NBA began.
From 1995 to 2005, 11 NBA drafts, a total of 39 players were drafted directly out of high school. That included a number of dominant success stories, including LeBron James, Garnett and Kobe Bryant, all among the top players in league history. Yet even with their success, this movement generated a lot of pushback across the nation.
Many inside and outside of the league were staunchly opposed to the idea of high school players jumping straight into the NBA. Some had thought-out reasons for those opinions, but others were simply offended by the concept.
Players such as Taj McDavid and Ellis Richardson declared for the draft but were not even close to being draft worthy; others such as Darius Miles or Ndudi Ebi made it to the league but flamed out. Lenny Cooke went from New York basketball phenom to undrafted. This just added fuel to the fire for those against drafting high schoolers as the failures shouted louder than the successes. It didn’t matter that players drafted straight from high school had, on average, longer careers than any other group of players.
The debate over allowing high school players into the league grew in intensity, until the league finally blinked and took action. Commissioner David Stern and the league, in conjunction with the NBA player’s association, changed league rules in 2005 to raise the age minimum from 18 to 19 years old and requiring American players to be a year removed from high school.
The league was trying to clean up its image. From multiple off-court criminal incidents such as the “Malice at the Palace” brawl between NBA players and fans, voices inside and outside of the league were saying the players were too young, immature, and, in some cases, too black. Of all the players drafted from high school into the NBA, only one — Robert Swift — was white.
Whether the league’s new rules were about image or about better setting teenagers up for success, as the league said publicly, they changed the path to the NBA. Players now had to go to college, or at least spend a year waiting to join the league. The prep-to-pro generation stretched from 1995 to 2005; it spawned the one-and-done generation, which has gone on ever since, players from Kevin Durant to Cade Cunningham stopping by college campuses on their way to the league.
The future of the NBA Draft is uncertain; it seems likely the league will change its rules again in the coming years, and high school prospects will again have the option to go straight into the NBA. Until then, the list of players who made that particular leap is fixed. It is from that list that we can evaluate who the greatest players of this era were.
We are considering for this list only those players to go directly from high school into the NBA (or a corresponding league). International players are not part of the evaluation, nor are American players who played a year overseas or otherwise got real world experience between high school and the NBA. Players such as Shawn Kemp and Enes Kanter, who spent time with college teams but left before playing, are also not part of this search.
With the definitions set, let’s get to the list. Here are the 30 best careers from those talented few who made the leap straight from high school into the NBA.