Since 2005, the NBA has not allowed young basketball players to enter the draft directly out of high school. In the years prior to this decision, NBA Drafts were glutted with talented high school players who, though unproven, looked promising. A good deal of those players did not develop into good basketball players, and the teams that drafted these players rued their decisions for several years. These players, according to most NBA experts, could have benefitted from a year or two in college before making the surprisingly big leap to the NBA. Indeed, had Kwame Brown, the Washington Wizards’ former number 1 overall pick, gone to college, he could have developed into a better, more versatile player. Even a player like Dwight Howard could have profited from a year in college, though few people remember or care about his sub-par rookie season.
Although Kwame Brown could have availed from a year in college, Lebron James would not have. LBJ was ready for the NBA straight out of high school. He is not the only player, of course, who could play with the big boys fresh out of high school. In the late 90s to early 2000s, many talented players entered the league straight after their prom. The list of player includes the likes of Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Andrew Bynum. The All-NBA teams from the first decade of the new century are littered with these players who skipped college.
As it purports to this day, the NBA instated this rule that bars high school players from the draft because the league wanted younger players to profit from a year of development and, hopefully, education. What if, however, Lebron James or Kobe Bryant were forced to go to college? It would have been enjoyable to see those players dominate at the collegiate level, but what personal advantage would either have accrued? Does a year of undergraduate education make that much of a difference for a player with a NBA-ready body and skill set? What if one of these studs got injured? The injury that undermined Nerlens Noel’s freshmen season at Kentucky illustrates this dilemma. Noel, who now plays in the NBA, would have been drafted high straight out of high school, but his injury hurt his draft stock—not to mention his potential going forward.
Since this rule, there has been an incredible group of players who have entered the league and dominate it today. Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, and Derrick Rose all could have made the leap to the league from high school, but, like Noel, the league’s new rule forced them to attend college. There have even been reports that certain academic institutions—and these “institutions” are not the dubious community colleges at the end of block, but the big publicly/privately funded ones—have created “bird” courses for some of these highly publicized freshmen, making it easier for them to maintain their focus on basketball. This accommodation of priority athletes, then, suggests that the NBA’s original intent, however altruistic it may have been, has been corrupted or at least unrealized. Chances are, for example, Kevin Durant did not learn how to manage his money better in his year at Texas. It seems unfair that corporations or employers would look beyond the pre-requisites of the job they are hiring for and expect something from their candidates beyond what the job entails. In the NBA, the only pre-requisite should be talent and physical readiness. If a player satisfies these two requirements, the player’s progress should not be impeded, especially if teams are salivating for a chance to snag him.
This list thus looks at ten players that, arguably, could have made the jump from high school to the NBA and skipped college altogether. Given this since-2005 preamble, this list only looks at players who have entered the league since the NBA changed the draft-eligibility rule—so no Carmelo Anthony, for instance. It should also be noted that there is no rhyme or reason to the rankings.
10. Greg Oden
Greg Oden’s inclusion on this list might shock and appall people, especially his fans, who have witnessed his not undocumented fall from grace. In the NBA, the former Ohio State star has not delivered on his massive potential, and injuries have kept him from proving his doubters wrong. Currently, Oden is a bench player for the Miami Heat, a position that few would have suspected him to be in when he was a collegiate star. However, Oden played well enough in his first two seasons to warrant his inclusion on this list. Indeed, had Oden come straight to the pros, he may have had his best season in his rookie campaign in that injuries had yet to derail his career. Oden had an NBA-ready body right out of high school, and his skill set—that is, his once-incredible ability to block shots—would have served him well in his jump to the pros.
9. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is, in the prevailing basketball argot, a “wetter.” He can light opposing defenses up from anywhere on the court, and his shooting percentages are staggering. While at Texas, Durant was a potent scorer surrounded by less-talented players. He has honed his scoring ability—there is no doubt of that—but, given his Scottie Pippen-like frame, Durant could have made a successful jump from high school to the pros. That said, from a fan’s perspective, it was very enjoyable tracking Durant and Oden’s seasons when the two of them were in college. Those were the halcyon days…
8. Demarcus Cousins
As intimated above, an athletic, well-built, precociously mature body is what allowed talented players to make the jump from high school to the pros. When he came out of high school, Demarcus Cousins had exactly that; he was already a formidable physical presence. His frame at eighteen would have enabled him to play with the big boys. With that said, however, Cousins probably did not have the necessary mental maturity coming out of high school, and he still struggles with his mental game to this day. We can only conjecture if a year under John Calipari, in Kentucky’s hallowed basketball program, helped or hurt his mental game.
7. Anthony Davis
Affectionately known as “The Brow,” Anthony Davis was a terrific freshmen for the Kentucky Wildcats—so good, in fact, that he led the team to a national championship. At Kentucky, a talented group of players surrounded Davis, fostering his success and growth. But Davis could have made the jump straight the pros. His length and uncanny ability to time his blocked shots would have been immediately transferable from high school to the pros. Also, Davis was a guard up until his massive growth spurt in high school, so he already possessed the finer basketball skills that big men take a good deal of time to develop.
6. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Unfortunately for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, it is a well-known fact that Michael Jordan, at 50 years of age, beat him in a game of one-on-one. But who can fault a young kid for losing to one of the athletes in the history of American sports? What is probably more troubling to Kidd-Gilchrist is the slow pace at which he is developing in the NBA. He has not blossomed into the stud that many expected him to become. His slow development suggests that his year in college did little to advance his game (dare I write that it stunted his progression?). Although his basketball skills are slowly developing, his athletic prowess has never been criticized, and those skills, I believe, would have enabled him to both make the jump from high school to the pros and enjoy the same success he currently enjoys.
5. Kevin Love
Coming out of high school, Kevin Love was a beast. His weight was closer to 300 lbs than 250; as such, Love could have sustained a good deal of NBA-level punishment in his rookie campaign, had he made the jump from high school to the NBA. In fact, a year in college probably slowed his progression into what he is today. That is to say, at UCLA, Ben Howland played and treated Love like a traditional big man, an American-style powerhouse on the block and not the kind of big guy who currently looks like he would dominate a game with FIBA rules. Had he made the jump, Kevin Love would have cut his weight down quicker.
4. Andrew Wiggins
Ok ok, so he’s not in the NBA yet. But Andrew Wiggins will attract a good deal of attention when the NBA Draft rolls around. Although he is not as polished as his counterpart, Jabari Parker—which means his ball skills are not up to Parker’s level—his athleticism is staggering. When Wiggins jumps to dunk or catch an alley-oop pass, his head routinely meets or exceeds the height of the rim. No coach can teach that kind of athleticism. On top of his leaping ability, his frame is perfect for the NBA in that he can play shooting guard, small forward, and, if his team goes small, power forward. That kind of versatility is highly valuable in the NBA. Thus, Wiggins could have made the jump from high school to the pros by virtue of his athleticism and body.
3. Derrick Rose
In his year at Memphis, Derrick Rose led the Memphis Tigers to the National Championship game. His Memphis team was the last really successful team for John Calipari before he left for Kentucky (Calipari sure likes his one-and-dones). However, it is unclear whether or not Rose truly profited from his year in college. Coming out of high school, Rose possessed Vince Carter-like athletic abilities, and he already had a devastating crossover. These two abilities would have enabled him to make a successful jump from high school to the pros.
2. Tyreke Evans
Another one of Calipari’s one-and-dones, Tyreke Evans played one year at Memphis before heading to the NBA. As a high school star, Evans commanded the national spotlight away from other talented high school players like Michael Beasley, Kevin Love, and Derrick Rose. Evans’ rookie season in the NBA, in which he won the Rookie of the Year Award, was his best season so far as a professional. Given his early success and his undeniable physical prowess, the former Memphis Tiger could have made the jump from high school to the NBA.
1. O.J. Mayo
O.J. Mayo’s declining effectiveness will lead some to question his inclusion on this list. Indeed, Mayo is on the wrong path in the pros, as he seems to be headed for oblivion as opposed to super-stardom. However, his once-potent scoring ability cannot be denied, especially in his younger and leaner days as a professional. At USC, O.J. Mayo impressed fans with his aforementioned torrid scoring ability, not to mention his above-average athletic prowess. When he came out of high school, Mayo could have made the jump to the NBA with the potential to add a successful year to what has become a declining career.