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What NBA Players Were Drafted Straight Out Of High School?

The NBA has seen a load of younger players get their name called in the draft. However, we’ve gotten to see a few players get drafted FAR earlier than anybody could have ever imagined in the early decades of the NBA. I’m not just talking about draft position either, but rather what age they entered the draft pool. 

What NBA Players Were Drafted Straight Out Of High School? Over the years, there have been a total of 41 players drafted to the NBA straight out of high school. Darryl Dawkins was the first player to be drafted out of high school in 1975, alongside Bill Willoughby. Kevin Garnett kicked off the next wave of NBA high school draftees in 1995, before other notable names; Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and LeBron James made names for themselves moving straight from high school to the NBA. Amir Johnson became the last player to be drafted from High School in 2005 before rules changed.

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There are many reasons why players were drafted from high school, they have achieved wildly different levels of success. The NBA has constantly wrangled with itself around the “issue” of drafting players out of high school, allowing them to skip NCAA Basketball. Recently changes to laws forcing the NCAA to allow athletes to make money and the rise of the G-league, Euro-league and the Australian National League as viable places to spend an NBA prospects gap year have diluted the issue. We dive into it all below.

A full list of all players drafted to the NBA straight from high school:

Draft YearRoundPickPlayerPos.NationalityDraft teamHigh school (city)
197515Darryl DawkinsCUnited StatesPhiladelphia 76ersMaynard Evans High School (Orlando, Florida)
1975219Bill WilloughbyFUnited StatesAtlanta HawksDwight Morrow High School (Englewood, New Jersey)
199515Kevin GarnettFUnited StatesMinnesota TimberwolvesFarragut Career Academy (Chicago, Illinois)
1996113Kobe BryantGUnited StatesCharlotte HornetsLower Merion High School (Ardmore, Pennsylvania)
1996117Jermaine O’NealF/CUnited StatesPortland Trail BlazersEau Claire High School (Columbia, South Carolina)
199719Tracy McGradyFUnited StatesToronto RaptorsMount Zion Christian Academy (Durham, North Carolina)
1998125Al HarringtonFUnited StatesIndiana PacersSt. Patrick High School (Elizabeth, New Jersey)
1998232Rashard LewisFUnited StatesSeattle SuperSonicsAlief Elsik High School (Houston, Texas)
1998240Korleone YoungFUnited StatesDetroit PistonsHargrave Military Academy (Chatham, Virginia)
199915Jonathan BenderFUnited StatesToronto RaptorsPicayune Memorial High School (Picayune, Mississippi)
1999129Leon SmithCUnited StatesDallas MavericksMartin Luther King High School (Chicago)
200013Darius MilesFUnited StatesLos Angeles ClippersEast St. Louis High School (East St. Louis, Illinois)
2000123DeShawn StevensonGUnited StatesUtah JazzWashington Union High School (Fresno, California)
200111Kwame BrownFUnited StatesWashington WizardsGlynn Academy (Brunswick, Georgia)
200112Tyson ChandlerCUnited StatesLos Angeles ClippersDominguez High School (Compton, California)
200114Eddy CurryCUnited StatesChicago BullsThornwood High School (South Holland, Illinois)
200118DeSagana DiopCSenegalCleveland CavaliersOak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Virginia)
2001246Ousmane CisseFMaliDenver NuggetsSt. Jude High School (Montgomery, Alabama)
200219Amar’e StoudemireF/CUnited StatesPhoenix SunsCypress Creek High School (Orlando, Florida)
200311LeBron JamesFUnited StatesCleveland CavaliersSt. Vincent – St. Mary High School (Akron, Ohio)
2003123Travis OutlawFUnited StatesPortland Trail BlazersStarkville High School (Starkville, Mississippi)
2003126Ndudi EbiFUnited KingdomMinnesota TimberwolvesWestbury Christian School (Houston, Texas)
2003127Kendrick PerkinsCUnited StatesMemphis GrizzliesClifton J. Ozen High School (Beaumont, Texas)
2003248James LangCUnited StatesNew Orleans HornetsCentral Park Christian High School (Birmingham, Alabama)
200411Dwight HowardF/CUnited StatesOrlando MagicSouthwest Atlanta Christian Academy (Atlanta, Georgia)
200414Shaun LivingstonGUnited StatesLos Angeles ClippersPeoria High School (Peoria, Illinois)
2004112Robert SwiftCUnited StatesSeattle SuperSonicsBakersfield High School (Bakersfield, California)
2004113Sebastian TelfairGUnited StatesPortland Trail BlazersAbraham Lincoln High School (Brooklyn, New York)
2004115Al JeffersonFUnited StatesBoston CelticsPrentiss High School (Prentiss, Mississippi)
2004117Josh SmithFUnited StatesAtlanta HawksOak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Virginia)
2004118J. R. SmithGUnited StatesNew Orleans HornetsSaint Benedict’s Preparatory School (Newark, New Jersey)
2004119Dorell WrightG/FUnited StatesMiami HeatSouth Kent Preparatory School (South Kent, Connecticut)
200516Martell WebsterG/FUnited StatesPortland Trail BlazersSeattle Preparatory School (Seattle, Washington)
2005110Andrew BynumCUnited StatesLos Angeles LakersSt. Joseph High School (Metuchen, New Jersey)
2005118Gerald GreenFUnited StatesBoston CelticsGulf Shores Academy (Houston, Texas)
2005234C. J. MilesGUnited StatesUtah JazzSkyline High School (Dallas, Texas)
2005235Ricky SánchezFPuerto RicoPortland Trail BlazersIMG Academy (Bradenton, Florida)
2005240Monta EllisGUnited StatesGolden State WarriorsLanier High School (Jackson, Mississippi)
2005245Louis WilliamsGUnited StatesPhiladelphia 76ersSouth Gwinnett High School (Snellville, Georgia)
2005249Andray BlatcheFUnited StatesWashington WizardsSouth Kent Preparatory School (South Kent, Connecticut)
2005256Amir JohnsonFUnited StatesDetroit PistonsWestchester High School (Los Angeles, California)

First NBA Player To Skip College

Obviously, there had to be that one player to start this trend for everybody. The guy that took the leap without knowing where he would land. That would be Darryl Dawkins in the 1975 NBA Draft. There was a court ruling a few years prior to Dawkins finishing high school that demanded a player compete in college for four years before heading into the NBA and turning pro.

However, there was a hardship exemption that got instituted. Dawkins submitted his application and gave them evidence of financial hardship at the time and was granted eligibility to the draft this caused great outcry in many parts of the Basketball world. He was drafted fifth overall by the Philadelphia 76ers that year and wound up playing 14 seasons in his hall of fame NBA career. He was joined that year by Bill Willoughby, taken 19th in the second round by the Hawks. After the 1975 NBA Draft concluded, there wasn’t another high schooler that got drafted into the NBA until 1995. 

Kevin Garnett and the High School Stars Golden Age

In 1995 Kevin Garnett became USA Today’s High School Basketball Player of the Year. When this happened, he gained a lot of momentum and decided to skip college and declare himself eligible for the upcoming NBA draft. The previous laws that forced players to be routed via the NCAA system had slowly been eroded. The barrier KG broke down was more of a glass ceiling. Technically there was nothing preventing NBA Teams drafting players directly from high school, it was just seen as naive on the parts of both the player and the franchise.

When Garnett declared for the draft, many people from across the basketball world came out to talk about how poor of an idea this was for him as a player. People thought that a high schooler wasn’t mature or ready enough to handle the nature of an NBA game, that players were better seasoning in the NCAA environment for a year or 2 first (ideally 4 if you were pro NCAA). Garnett wasn’t an exception, he was tipped to struggle. Garnett quickly became a phenomenal player in the league after he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves and is known as one of the strongest and fiercest competitors of all time.

Garnett’s bravery kicked down the barricade, the following year saw Jermaine O’neal and Kobe Bryant following his lead, 1997 saw Tracey Mcgrady and from then on it escalated.

Not all players were as successful on the court as those early pioneers, but the vast majority achieved success on the court, excelling as the best of the best that they truly were. Even those who failed to achieve high levels of success on the court benefited financially with lucrative NBA contracts setting them up well for life after the NBA. Detractors would always point to those that failed to meet expectations such as Korleone Young and Leon Smith as case studies on why skipping the NCAA to go pro was a bad idea, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that it makes no difference to most players.

This extract from a Bleacher Report article puts the success rate into good context:

“I used 1995 since that was the year Kevin Garnett started the trend of players jumping straight into the pros. I was surprised to find out that every player but four played more than one year in the NBA.

Only one player, Ousmane Cisse, has not seen any playing time on an NBA team. After being drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the second round in 2001, Cisse has not been able to find his way onto an NBA team.

The other three players Korleone Young, Leon Smith, and James Lang only saw one year of NBA action after being drafted. Leon Smith did play only one game for the Seattle Supersonics in ’03-’04 but really only saw action with the Atlanta Hawks in ’01-’02.

Young and Lang were drafted in the second round so they were long shots to catch on with a team. Young was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1998 and Lang was drafted by New Orleans Hornets in 2003.”

That all said, NBA Commissioner David Stern campaigned for decades to get an age cap put on entry to the NBA. His target age was 20, but in 2005 he was finally successful with a compromise down to the age of 19.

This was a boon for the NCAA as it meant almost all future NBA stars would pass through their league structure. This created the “One & Done” era of NCAA Basketball. 

1995 – 2005 saw 11 Drafts where High School players were taken straight from high school. Even now the push continues to abolish the age cap and allow players to turn pro and maximize their earning potential as soon as they feel ready, post high school. College isn’t for everyone.

Why Enter So Early?

Like we said earlier, there are a few reasons why a player would want to get into the big leagues straight out of high school. The first one would be regarding issues with the NCAA and how they pay players. We’ve seen guys rather head into the G-League in order to make some money for their family rather than play for free in college. Sometimes these guys want to profit from their brand and make money from endorsements but the rules regarding these issues have always been murky. Another reason would be because of maturity. Why would a blossoming basketball star want to spend a couple years of his life competing in college against similar competition. When instead, he could go up against the best of the best and get elite level coaching and conditioning to take his game to the next level? Then finally, momentum is a large factor in this decision. Some players get to rise to fame early on in their lives, we have seen it with a few players nowadays. LaMelo Ball, Zion Williamson and LeBron James are just a handful of them. All of these guys have seen themselves get media attention during high school, and their freakish athleticism and highlight plays have put them on the radar of NBA franchises. When a young kid gets this type of attention, he is going to want to dive straight into the big leagues and build a brand out of the acquired fame. It allows him to make money straight away instead of risking an injury over a year or multiple years in college.

Number One Overall Selections

To this day, only three players have been able to get selected with the number one overall pick to the NBA straight out of high school. The first of them happened to be Kwame Brown. Yes, you know exactly who this is. This is the guy that Stephen A. Smith absolutely obliterated all those years ago after another poor performance.

Brown wasn’t a terrible pick whatsoever, but there was certainly a lot of potential that the Washington Wizards missed out on here. He got drafted straight out of Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Georgia.

The next player to go number 1 was LeBron James, which isn’t much of a surprise anymore even back in his 2003 Draft Class. James was unbelievably talented back when he played at St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School in Akron, Ohio. So many scouts came to watch him play during these games that it was basically a no-brainer that he would be drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Then lastly, we have Dwight Howard. Howard gained attention while he competed at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy in Atlanta Georgia. He was taken with the top pick by the Orlando Magic, gaining in popularity due to his dominance on the glass and in the athleticism department.

Will High School Players be allowed to join the NBA again?

With every year that passes it seems more and more likely that the NBA will abolish the 19 age cap and allow players to enter the draft as soon as they finish high school. We won’t go into all the nuanced politics and reasons for this here. But quite simply put, when players can make guaranteed millions getting drafted as the 60th overall pick or take up an NCAA scholarship if they don’t get drafted into the NBA, then it’s hard to argue that them having to wait a year to try and join the league and go pro is in their own interest.

Our prediction? The 2024 Draft will see the return of high school players to the NBA.

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