Looking Back at the High School Scouting Reports of Today's Biggest NBA Stars
Not every high schooler is LeBron James.
The Cleveland Cavaliers superstar was hyped beyond belief before finishing the 12th grade—see: "The Chosen One"—and still managed to exceed the expectations after making the jump to the NBA.
The scouting reports were all accurate (more on this later), properly pinpointing his strengths and weaknesses while comparing him to established legends.
But for every James, there's an unheralded prospect who begins making a name for himself as a collegiate athlete, then continues his emergence as a professional baller. These youngsters flew well under the radar while thinking about stuff like prom dates and chemistry class, but that didn't stop them from developing into NBA stars.
In the spirit of national signing day, which captured the sporting world's attention Wednesday, indulge us as we take this nostalgic dive back into the archives, seeking out the most telling high school scouting reports for current NBA standouts in alphabetical order.
Jimmy Butler, SG/SF, Chicago Bulls
247Sports Rank: No. 127 (2 Stars)
Rivals Rank: Unranked
Now that Jimmy Butler is an NBA superstar who routinely performs like one of the world's 10 best players, it's hard to imagine that he wasn't a coveted recruit out of Tomball High School. In fact, he attended junior college before transferring to Marquette, as his coach with the Golden Eagles, Buzz Williams, explained to Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher:
He was ranked 73rd in the state of Texas coming out of high school. Not in the country, in the state. No. 72 went to the Citadel. No. 74 went to a Division II school. He was an afterthought in every possible way. He didn't go to play at a junior college because a Division I program sent him there to prepare him. He went because he didn't have any other options.
But perhaps Williams understood the dormant potential within Butler's 6'6", 215-pound frame.
During his one year at Tyler Junior College, the future NBA star averaged 18.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 54.8 percent from the field, 42.2 percent from three-point territory and 71.3 percent from the stripe. It was enough to inspire Williams to give the closest thing you can find to a pre-college scouting report for this unheralded prospect.
"He became one of the most sought-after players in the country this year," the coach told Scout.com. "He can do a lot of different things, similar to players that are currently on our team. You always want so sign [sic] guys whose bodies, skill set and athleticism never restricts them to only being able to do one thing."
DeMarcus Cousins, C, Sacramento Kings
247Sports Rank: No. 3 (5 stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 2 (5 stars)
Few ever doubted DeMarcus Cousins would be special. He was a much-ballyhooed prospect even before committing to the Kentucky Wildcats, then he enjoyed a great (albeit brief) collegiate career alongside John Wall and Eric Bledsoe prior to joining the Sacramento Kings.
According to 247Sports, only Wall and Derrick Favors received higher evaluations in the class of 2009. Just Wall ranked ahead in Rivals' rankings. Two years before he'd leave for Lexington, ESPN.com's recruiting profile was already on the money. This is from October 2007:
A do-it-all big man. Cousins has the ability to score in the post as well as step out beyond the three point line and knock down shots at a high percentage. On the block, he uses size and strength to create space to get into his move. The game seems easy to him, would love to see him play in intensity on each possession. He rebounds in traffic with strong, soft hands. He has a good handle which allows him to catch on the perimeter and drive to score without being out of control. Great size and strength. The sky is the limit if DeMarcus continues to develop.
In the site's final assessment, (written January, 2009), it brought up a concern that still exists: "He has to keep his emotions in check when he faces an opponent that plays big-time defense on him and matches Cousins' level of physicality."
Combine those, and you have an accurate assessment of the player Boogie has become in 2017—an emotionally volatile center who can dominate any opponent with a devastating combination of size, strength and finesse.
Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
247Sports Rank: No. 281 (3 Stars)
Rivals Rank: Unranked
Stephen Curry was so far from the national radar before he committed to Davidson that finding high school scouting reports is an impossible task. We have to rely on memories, like this one from Rivals' Eric Bossi:
The only time I really ever got to see Curry in high school was at the 2005 NBPA Top 100 Camp. Back in those days it was held on the campus of VCU in Richmond and Curry looked to be pretty far over his head.
He couldn’t have been much bigger than 6-foot-1 and 150 pounds at the time, and you could see that he had a great feel for the game and he wouldn’t miss if left open. However, with a slow release at the time, he had to be wide open and he didn’t get a lot of opportunities to show what he could do during camp.
Looking back now, it's hilarious to think of Curry operating with anything but a lightning-quick release. But he wasn't nearly the same player over a decade ago, which is why he ranked directly behind footnotes such as K'Len Morris, Chris Singletary, Brad Sheehan, Corey Lowe and Kyle Austin in 247Sports' hierarchy.
In fact, Stephen wasn't even the top Curry in his class. Dante Curry ranked 151 spots ahead, and he'd spend a year at South Florida before transferring to Georgia State and filling a minor spot in the rotation for three years.
Meanwhile, Steph has both improved his release speed and gone on to bigger, better things.
Anthony Davis, PF/C, New Orleans Pelicans
247Sports Rank: No. 1 (5 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 2 (5 Stars)
Anthony Davis wasn't on the radar of top-tier colleges when he playing point guard. But as soon as he underwent a late seven-inch growth spurt and sprouted closer to seven feet, he couldn't be kept from the top of the recruiting rankings—only Austin Rivers placed ahead on Rivals.
Even still, there were questions about his frame, his offensive skill set and the rapid nature of his surge up the aforementioned rankings. DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony listed some of them in January, 2011:
Davis is still very much a work in progress at the same time, much more-so than your average top recruit. He turns the ball over frequently, will air-ball the occasional jumper, doesn't appear to have much of a post-game, shows average decision making skills, and lacks quite a bit in the ways of strength and fundamentals defensively.
Many names come to mind when watching him play: John Henson, Anthony Randolph, Jonathan Bender, Brandan Wright, Tim Thomas, Perry Jones—the list goes on and on.
No one saw the offensive ability coming this quickly, which is why those names all sell him so thoroughly short. He's now compared to luminaries such as Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and Hakeem Olajuwon more than NBA busts and players steeped in relative anonymity.
Consider Davis the rare high school prospect who served as one of the nation's biggest names and was still drastically undersold.
DeMar DeRozan, SG, Toronto Raptors
247Sports Rank: No. 6 (5 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 3 (5 Stars)
Slam Online's Jeff Fox ranked DeMar DeRozan in the summer of 2008, and he was right on the money with his analysis:
DeRozan was the one making the crowd say uhh with his moves on the court. A highflying athletic guard, DeRozan can break his man down off the dribble and take it to the hole strong or stay outside and knock down long-range Js.
While he is expected to fill the void left by O.J. Mayo in the Trojan’s backcourt, DeRozan is not the playmaker Mayo was and isn’t as NBA ready. Nonetheless, he should be one of the first names out of David Stern’s mouth at next June’s draft.
DraftExpress' Rodger Bohn was also accurate, though he wrote about DeRozan one year earlier at the LeBron James Skills Academy:
DeRozan continued to show everyone in attendance why he is the top shooting guard in the nation, as he honestly looked like an NBA wing out there with high school kids on Sunday.
As far as scoring is concerned, there isn’t much that he didn’t show out there. The USC recruit shot the ball from three-point range (both off of the dribble and from a standstill), got to the rim at will, and was downright money from midrange. Demar still doesn’t do a ton on the defensive end, but once he hits the collegiate level, the USC coaching staff will definitely help him with any of his problems on that end of the floor.
The defense never came around. The three-point range didn't stick once he transitioned to the NBA. But the mid-range shooting? Well, that's what has allowed DeRozan to average 27.8 points per game and emerge as one of the Association's most unique offensive threats.
Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Golden State Warriors
247Sports Rank: No. 2 (5 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 2 (5 Stars)
How long did it take the world to realize Kevin Durant would become one of the greatest offensive talents the NBA has ever witnessed? He was a consensus top recruit while still playing against high schoolers, trailing only a then-healthy Greg Oden on most lists.
But did the Texas Longhorns know what he'd turn into one day? Steve Smith, (Durant's coach as a junior at Oak Hill Academy), told USA Today's Jason Jordan he knew his pupil would be special, but it's tough to know how much his memories may have changed over the course of nine years:
When we got here he was really thin and he looked really weak physically. You just didn’t know how strong he was gonna get, but by about January I thought that he was as skilled as any player we’ve ever had and I thought he was as big as any player we’ve ever had.
I would always compare him to Carmelo (Anthony) and people thought I was crazy, but I thought he’d be that level and he’s proved me right. He’s got a great work ethic and a great attitude.
So, let's dig further into the archives, turning to DraftExpress' Rodger Bohn in March 2006:
At 6’10, there are few, if any, players at his age and size that have the perimeter game Durant has. The SG/SF/PF has NBA three point range, can shoot off the dribble, and is incredibly coordinated for a player his size.
It is not uncommon to see Durant pull up from 23 or 24 feet on one possession, only to break his man down off of the dribble and hit a silky smooth 17 footer on the very next possession. The Texas recruit also has the ability to handle the ball incredibly well for a 6’10 player, enabling him to get by smaller players with ease.
That still sounds quite similar to how KD operates now. He's added the strength necessary to survive the rigors of the NBA calendar, no longer plays defense in such upright fashion and has continued honing those aforementioned offensive skills.
Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
247Sports Rank: No. 14 (5 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 25 (5 Stars)
Before he became the greatest thing since sliced bread for the Philadelphia 76ers—looking every bit the part of a superstar who can single-handedly lift the franchise into playoff contention—he sat out for two years while letting various parts of his body heal. Before he was 2014's No. 3 pick, he was gradually improving for the Kansas Jayhawks and drawing lofty comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon while he dazzled opponents with his footwork.
Before he was showered with "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" chants, he was a top recruit coming out of The Rock School in Gainesville, Florida. But he wasn't quite the top recruit, as he trailed more than a handful of players in every set of rankings. Rivals, for example, had him behind Noah Vonleh, Chris Walker, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Kasey Hill and others.
The world knew he would be good. It didn't know the Cameroonian center would become a dominant rim protector and all-around offensive threat.
"As a defensive stalwart, he can be suckered into fakes so he's got to stand his ground," ESPN.com's scouting profile explained in May 2013. "Offensively, he does need a comfort zone. He has a lot to work with but requires a signature move. There's the issue of game experience which he has very little. Physically he has a way to go but again, that's natural development."
"Embiid, a 7'0" and 230-pound center that ESPN's Dave Telep called the best prospect entering the Big 12 next season, brings similar size that KU will soon be losing in senior Jeff Withey along with a versatile game resembling Darrell Arthur or Julian Wright," Andrew Doughty wrote for Bleacher Report six months earlier. "The combination of Withey and Arthur, scary isn't it?"
Withey and Arthur combined isn't anywhere near as scary as what Embiid has become.
Draymond Green, PF, Golden State Warriors
247Sports Rank: No. 62 (4 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 122 (3 Stars)
Draymond Green has spent his entire basketball career flying below the radar. He was a relatively anonymous recruit even before he was a second-round pick during the 2012 NBA draft—a reward for an excellent four-year career at Michigan State.
247Sports had him sandwiched between Greg Echenique (Rutgers) and Dashan Harris (Texas A&M), while Rivals placed him in the middle of Lewis Jackson (Purdue) and Teondre Williams (Oregon). But perhaps the services should have been more bullish. Green's versatile skill set was widely acknowledged, even if his lack of size and explosive athleticism kept him from showcasing the tantalizing upside that boosted other players' stocks.
"Draymond should be able to do a lot of things for them much like he does for us," Lou Dawkins, Green's head coach at Saginaw High School, told Rivals' Justin Young. "He's a banger down low but also skilled enough to handle the ball or bring it up. Draymond is such a great passer in the half-court, too. He's got a great comfort level on the floor."
Though that seems eerily accurate these days, we should also turn to an unbiased source. Here's what ESPN.com's recruiting profile said about the future NBA champion:
The thing that makes Green so interesting as a prospect is his versatility. His ability to post and score inside at 240 lbs makes him too big and strong for small forwards to handle. Then on the flip side he's very skilled with the basketball on the wing, and can bury 3-pointers consistently. Green is also a very good passer and handles the ball well in the open court.
How well he plays in college will likely depend on him keeping his weight in check. He's much more effective as a quick power forward than as a slow powerful wing forward. His high basketball IQ is an added bonus.
Check, check and check.
James Harden, PG, Houston Rockets
247Sports Rank: No. 15 (5 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 11 (5 Stars)
James Harden was almost clean-shaven when he was preparing to leave Artesia High School, though the follicular forest would soon start flourishing at Arizona State. Even back then, when Arizona, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State were all fighting for his services, he was viewed as a dominant offensive threat.
DraftExpress' Mike Schmidt identified the tools that remain his strengths for the Houston Rockets after watching Artesia take on Mater Dei in March 2007:
Harden displayed his ability to get to the hoop from the start of the game against Mater Dei. He possesses great control of his body, and finishes with great strength at the basket. He finished numerous layups in traffic after taking contact from much taller opposing players.
Though he didn’t display it on Saturday, Harden has developed a reputation for being a great outside shooter. He has a quick and effective stroke, releasing the ball high and with good rotation (though he lacks elevation). At this point, it also appears that Harden may have combo guard potential. His ability to see the floor led to some great looks for his teammates, and he also can break the defender down off the dribble and dish to the open man.
But one thing is vastly different:
"Defensively, Harden seems to be very well-rounded at this point. He moves his feet well and always keeps good positioning to recover when helping out. In addition to his solid fundamentals, he has quick hands and good anticipation skills," Schmidt went on to write.
And back then, Harden expressed similar sentiments:
"I don't think I have one aspect of my game that I'm really good at," he told DevilDigest.com before his freshman season in Tempe. "I just do everything OK and I need to improve on everything. I have a 7-foot wingspan, so that helps me get to a lot of loose balls on defense. My quickness also helps me on my defense."
LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers
247Sports Rank: No. 1 (5 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 1 (5 Stars)
LeBron James was already anointed the next big thing coming out of high school. He graced the cover of Slam Magazine alongside Sebastian Telfair, held the top spot in every set of recruiting rankings imaginable (even though he was never doing anything but going prep-to-pro) and was bandied about as a future all-time great.
Here's what one anonymous Western Conference general manager told ESPN.com's Marc Stein about a 17-year-old James:
The hype is pretty justified. Looking at the way Yao Ming's playing, I don't know if LeBron would have gone first in the draft last year, but he's a 6-8 guy who can play point guard.
He's a man among boys, a superstar in the making. I hear people say shooting is his weak spot. It's his 'weaker' spot. He's probably an average shooter, but if you look at Michael Jordan when he came into the league, he was a very average shooter. Kobe was probably an average shooter, too, as a rookie. LeBron's got enough technique that I wouldn't worry about it.
Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Tracy McGrady. Magic Johnson. Those were the types of names that got tossed around when discussing the St. Vincent–St. Mary High School megaprospect.
His strengths? Everything started with his body, as James' combination of size and athleticism made him far more advanced than most prospects his age. His skill followed, as scouts universally noticed his playmaking abilities and feel for the game. Shooting was the only weakness.
"If I were a general manager, there are only four or five NBA players that I wouldn't trade to get him right now," Danny Ainge told Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl. "I love Jason Williams at Duke, and I've heard of the Chinese guy [Yao Ming], but if LeBron came out this year, I wouldn't even have to think about it. I'd take him No. 1."
As it turns out, he wasn't overhyped.
Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio Spurs
247Sports Rank: No. 50 (4 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 48 (4 Stars)
ESPN.com's recruiting profile said the following about when Kawhi Leonard was still a sophomore at Riverside's Martin Luther King High School:
Leonard is an undersized four-man who plays hard at both ends. This lefty is a blue-collar prospect whose strength is rebounding and passing. He has a great frame with a nice wingspan and is a good athlete as well. He plays the game with a purpose on every possession and competes hard at both ends. His jump shot - more like a set-shot - is decent and it has a soft landing as well.
As Leonard continues to smoothen out his jump shot and post skills, he has the savvy and demeanor to garner a few division one looks at the low-mid division one level.
Two years later, though, some weaknesses had emerged:
"Quicker defenders can give him problems because he is generally a straight-line player and struggles going side-to-side," the report noted. "At the next level, Leonard can be a 4/3 on offense, but on defense he may be inclined to guarding 3s because of his lack of lateral quickness."
One could say Leonard's evolved since then, turning into an all-around contributor during his time at San Diego State, with the San Antonio Spurs subsequently helping him develop into a dynamite shooter. Now, he can create his own looks while darting across the lane, and he plays defense well enough against everyone that he's become a two-time Defensive Player of the Year.
But those aren't even the most notable outliers from his pre-college scouting reports. According to Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times, "The only negatives [Leonard's high school coach Tim] Sweeney heard were some vague rumblings about a poor work ethic."
Cue the sound of Gregg Popovich chuckling.
Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston Celtics
247Sports Rank: No. 187 (3 Stars)
Rivals Rank: No. 92 (4 Stars)
Even on Rivals, which treated Isaiah Thomas more favorably than 247Sports almost a decade ago, the following point guards ranked ahead of the diminutive floor general: Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Willie Warren, Kemba Walker, DeAndre Liggins, Jerime Anderson, Iman Shumpert, Courtney Fortson, Larry Drew, Tyshawn Taylor, Cashmere Wright and Luke Loucks.
Of those, Walker may be the only one who's enjoyed a more successful NBA career.
"Isaiah doesn't always push the ball up court," Friends of Hoop coach Jim Marsh told Michael McLaughlin of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about the high school point guard. "He usually takes his time and sets you up around 30 feet from the basket, then he makes that little crossover dribble and breaks your ankles with his quickness."
Nine years later, Thomas is using those same moves to torture NBA defenders. His hesitation dribbles and shooting strokes weren't nearly as polished (though his defense was similarly putrid) back in the day, but he relied on a similar skill set to burst onto Washington's radar.
"Thomas, listed at 5'9", has been compared to former Washington star Nate Robinson in both style and production," the Seattle Times staff wrote while Thomas was still deciding where he'd play collegiate ball. "He was named the Times 4A Player of the Year last season after averaging 31.6 points. He set a 4A state-tournament record with 51 points in a semifinal loss to Franklin."
Robinson was the natural comparison back then, but Thomas has now left his fellow undersized guard far behind. The former averaged above 15.0 points during just one NBA season; the latter has already beaten that benchmark four times and is averaging 29.4 points this year.
Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder
247Sports Rank: No. 151 (3 Stars)
Rivals Rank: Unranked (3 Stars)
Now that Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double and serving as one of the MVP front-runners, it's easy to assume he was a top recruit coming out of Leuzinger High School. Surely, he was so highly coveted that UCLA had to fend off other suitors with a baseball bat.
Westbrook didn't receive much attention from top collegiate programs—perhaps because he didn't grow into his 6'3" frame until the end of his high school career. Arizona State, Creighton, Kent State, Miami and San Diego were the only other schools to extend him formal offers, and he sat below James Keefe among UCLA enrollees in the class of 2006.
Westbrook was viewed primarily as a shooting guard at the time; the playmaking skills wouldn't develop until he'd grown under head coach Ben Howland. He didn't even gain recognition in NBA draft circles until midway through his sophomore year. That's when Rodger Bohn wrote the following for DraftExpress:
Coming off of the bench this season, Westbrook has been incredibly productive, especially in terms of his playmaking. He is averaging 5.7 assists while playing off of the ball for the most part, leaving one to ponder what he could be able to do with the ball in his hands for the entire game. His court vision isn't spectacular by any stretch, but he does a good job playing within UCLA's system, and finding the many weapons he has around him within their set offense.
The explosiveness that he possesses directly translates into his ability to get to the rim, where he has shown no problem converting in transition when presented with the opportunity. In traffic he seems to struggle a bit, though, as he's often out of control by the time he reaches the basket
Bohn also noted that Westbrook "struggles to create his own shot on a consistent basis, and often looks completely out of control when forced to weave in and out of traffic...when you break down his skill set individually, it's quite clear that he has a lot of holes to his game."
Westbrook's development into a one-man wrecking ball is a testament to endless hours of hard work. He was not anything close to this player as a high school standout, nor was he expected to enjoy this type of ceiling.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.