Though the NBA has put an (possibly temporary) end to the drafting of high school players, there was a time not long ago when this was common practice around the league. Among others, it's how the world fell in love—boy, weren't those the days—with LeBron James.
Countless other notable figures spring to mind when thinking of great prep-to-pro players over the years... The Hall of Fame isn't only filled with college recruits, after all. My job today is to organize these names in an easy-to-read, top-10 list.
Read on, and if I missed anybody, do tell.
Shaun Livingston, how I wish I could have you on here...
Haha! You should have seen your face just now!
This entry is mostly poking fun, unfortunately, as Brown does have the distinction of being one of the most talked-about players to come out of high school, but for all the wrong reasons.
As long as there's an NBA, Brown will come to people's minds almost involuntarily whenever someone brings up draft busts. So he makes an appearance based on sheer historical significance. Moving on...
The way this list shook out, there wasn't enough room for each of these two to get a slide, and meanwhile, leaving them off the list altogether didn't feel right. Therefore, kicking off the list as co-entrants: T-Mac and J.O.
Both of these players were, at one time, right behind Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan as the finest wing scorer and power forward, respectively, in the NBA.
McGrady twice led the league in scoring and was once such a coveted player that Orlando Magic officials received death threats after trading him to Houston. He also made the off-the-backboard dunk in vogue (in-game, at least.)
O'Neal had a slow start in Portland after becoming only the third high schooler in the '90s to go straight to the pros. Eventually, he was traded to the Pacers, where he developed into an elite big man with a combination of footwork, scoring touch, rebounding and defense. He even placed in the race for 2004 NBA MVP.
Both of these players, however, were hobbled by injuries a little too early in their careers, and will ultimately be remembered for how much more they could have done with a few extra years of prime basketball.
Josh Smith is one multitalented guy. He can score (airborne or otherwise), rebound, defend, run the floor and even drop a pretty dime here and there.
Drafted in 2004 by the Hawks, he burst on the scene as a fearsome aerial attacker and shot-blocker—as a rookie, he once had 10 blocks and zero fouls in a game—although he wasn't the most productive of youngsters overall.
Over the years, he's educated himself on those parts of basketball that don't rely solely on one's ability to challenge gravity, and he's now a perennial All-Star candidate—although he has yet to crack that nut.
The only knock on him is still shot selection and, occasionally, motivation, in spite of which he's one of the more sought-after players in the league whenever trade talks arise.
By the time his career is over, Josh Smith has the tools to be remembered for a long time.
While Dawkins was not the first player ever drafted out of high school, he was the first to go straight to the NBA. He would be followed 14 picks later by Bill Willoughby, after which the NBA would go 20 years before seeing another prep-to-pro leap.
Also known as "Chocolate Thunder" (could he be any more '70s?), Dawkins was and still is the embodiment of power dunking. His ridiculously powerful (and equally ridiculously named) dunks were too much for a regulation basket to withstand (see: Robinzine cryin'...), and he was single-handedly responsible for the implementation of the breakaway rims we still have today.
Although he never really set the league on fire performance-wise—don't go thinking he wasn't a feared player—Darryl Dawkins is one of the more notable, recognizable players ever to skip college for the pros.
I'm always hesitant to include Kemp on this kind of list because, although he was drafted without having played a college game, he did attend college and was not recruited out of high school. But for all intents and purposes, the SuperSonics drafted a guy in 1989 that they'd only seen in high-school action, so fine.
All off-court issues aside, Kemp will always be remembered in his heyday as one of the most athletic and prolific dunkers the league had ever seen. As a youngster, legend has it he once dunked so hard that sparks flew off the rim. "The Reign Man" may very well have been the NBA's biggest poster-seller for much of the '90s.
A six-time All-Star, his finest hour came when he and Gary Payton led the Sonics to the NBA Finals in 1996—a time when he was considered second only to Karl Malone among power forwards—when they bowed out to perhaps the greatest team ever. Not too shabby.
Stoudemire built a reputation as perhaps the NBA's most dangerous post scorer while playing for the Phoenix Suns, where he, Steve Nash and Shawn Marion spent a few years chewing up defenses in every way imaginable.
He was also one of the NBA's more prolific rim-wreckers and among the marquee attractions wherever the Suns played.
In recent years, injuries have threatened to derail his career—the threat, though unrealized, is ever-present—and he may be on the verge of losing a step sooner than later. That said, it's hard to argue with performance thus far.
And if only Robert Horry wasn't the dirtiest player the Suns had ever encountered, he might even have a ring today.
Owner of perhaps the most well-developed physique ever seen in a high schooler when he came to Orlando in 2004, Dwight Howard has evolved into nothing less than a nightmare for the other pivots in the league.
A downright punishing force under both baskets, he's already a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, a six-time All-Star and perennial All-NBA first-teamer. Howard's size and strength are complemented beautifully by his ability to get off the floor—as evidenced by his 2008 Slam Dunk Contest trophy—which allows him to virtually inhale lobs, rebounds and opposing shots out of the air like some kind of bird...or plane...
Howard's legacy—setting aside any rings he wins or damage he does to his image over the course of his inexorable exit from Orlando—will likely be that of a unique physical specimen who single-handedly determined a team's defensive personality. He should also be prominently featured in the nostalgic highlight reels of tomorrow.
Garnett was at the forefront in the modern era of drafting high schoolers, as the league hadn't seen this happen since the '70s. When the Timberwolves took him fifth overall in 1995, he set off a decade of college-skipping.
He went on to become an All-Star in what should have been his sophomore year in the NCAA. In the years that followed, KG was a 14-time All-Star, Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, nine-time All-NBAer and all-around household name.
Garnett will go down as the one of the most intense and technically diverse bigs in NBA history, the lasting face of the Timberwolves (for the moment) and the man who helped Boston rediscover its championship roots.
At No. 3, we have the most ballyhooed and publicized athlete in the history of high-school sports—LeBron James. A guy who was so heavily touted that he was signed to a $90 million shoe deal before his first pro game.
Since then, he's gone on to justify the hype and then some, becoming an eight-time All-Star, two-time MVP, statistical beast and highlight machine. With the speed of a 1 and the strength of a 4, he's very likely to go down as the most physically gifted player in NBA history.
Of course, LeBron also has a notoriety all his own what with the ego, the spineless attitude (and its countless manifestations) and the uncannily bad Finals record. Until further notice, the next two guys on this list will always have a leg up no matter how impressed we all are with His I-ness.
He could climb up the list if only his shortcomings weren't as legendary as his achievements.
At No. 2, we have the man who started it all...Moses Malone.
Malone was drafted into the ABA at age 19 in 1974, and when the NBA-ABA merger took place in 1976, he landed on the Buffalo Braves. Unfortunately for them, the Braves didn't realize the caliber of player they had and let him go to the Houston Rockets.
From there, Malone developed into the most prolific rebounder in the league (particularly on the offensive glass) and an offensive force in the low blocks.
After six seasons in Houston, Malone was dealt to the 76ers, where he teamed with Julius Erving to bring a championship to Philadelphia in 1983. This was the year he gave the world the "fo', fo', fo'," his prediction that the Sixers would sweep the playoffs that year—which they came within one loss of backing up.
To this day, Malone remains the first and only player to win back-to-back MVPs on two different teams (Rockets, Sixers) and one of the most respected centers in NBA history—in the same class as the Bills, Wilts and Kareems of years past.
You should know better than to expect someone else atop this list...
Kobe Bryant was the second high schooler (after Garnett the previous year) drafted into the NBA when the practice was revived in the mid-'90s. He was selected by the Charlotte Hornets, who traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.
Kobe quickly became a fan favorite, thanks to his unprecedented (at the time) athleticism and showmanship, and his star rose meteorically in his first few years. Before long, he was a 20-point scorer and All-Defensive team member, teaming with Shaq to form the most formidable one-two punch, perhaps, ever in this league and win three NBA titles in a row.
A couple more years later, Kobe was a league-leading scoring machine of historical magnitude—just ask Toronto—albeit on an underachieving squad. After some important roster moves took the Lakers out of their post-Shaq funk, Kobe was once again winning rings, this time as the unquestioned leader of the team and a more complete, all-around player.
A 14-time All-Star, All-NBA mainstay and former MVP, Kobe will go down in history as perhaps the most gifted scorer ever to play the game and the greatest shooting guard this side of that Michael person.