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The Best NBA Players to Come Out of High School

best NBA players
(Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Best NBA Players to Come Out of High School

The NBA is nearing a change in the age of draft-eligible players from 19 years old to 18 years old, according to a report from The Athletic

This rule change would allow for players to be drafted straight out of high school, something we have not seen since 2006. The last NBA player to be drafted fresh out of high school was Amir Johnson who spent 14 years playing in the NBA and was one of nine high schoolers selected in the 2005 NBA draft.

With a new Collective Bargaining Agreement looming it was the perfect chance to revert back to allowing 18-year-olds to be drafted. There has been quite a bit of discussion in recent years about high school players finding other alternatives to college basketball. Among those options were going abroad to play in other professional leagues like Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball did or going straight to the NBA G League, something Houston Rockets guard Jalen Green did in 2020.

It will be interesting to see how this affects the NCAA basketball landscape with the one-and-done era possibly coming to an end.

The earliest this rule could go into place would be 2024 which, coincidentally, is the first year Bronny James would be draft eligible. We have seen some of the league’s best players come straight out of high school prior to the 2006 age change. Here are the best NBA players past and present to go directly to the NBA from high school.

Honorable mentions: J.R. Smith, Shawn Kemp, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Dwight Howard

J.R. Smith is now playing collegiate golf, but beforehand he was one of the most entertaining NBA players on and off the court. The two-time NBA Champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers and the 2013 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner had an aura about him that made his high-flying dunks and sharp shooting a spectacle to watch. Smith was drafted by the New Orleans Hornets but truly rose to relative fame during stints with the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks.

While taking a year off following high school, Shawn Kemp was a dominant post threat with the Seattle Supersonics. His power was unmatched at the time and helped him make six All-Star Game appearances. The strong dunker peaked in Seattle, helping the Supersonics make it to the 1996 NBA Finals before falling in six games to the 72-10 Chicago Bulls.

Amar’e Stoudemire was one of only two players drafted out of high school to win Rookie of the Year. He did so after being drafted ninth overall by the Phoenix Suns. During his 14-year career, Stoudemire went to six All-Star Games, including five straight from 2007-11. While teamed up with Steve Nash the duo became a premier one-two punch helping the Suns finish with the best record in the Western Conference in the 2004-05 season.

Dwight Howard may have become more of a meme in recent years with the Lakers, but his play as a member of the Orlando Magic was something special and that’s why he is one of the best NBA players to come straight from high school. There was a period of time when Howard was arguably the best center in the league. He almost single-handedly brought the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals and if it wasn’t for him, we may have had a Kobe vs LeBron finals. Howard was an eight-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, and a 2020 NBA Champion. Superman rose to fame with his innate shot-blocking ability and lethal dunks, highlighted by becoming the 2008 Slam Dunk Champion.

5. Tracy McGrady

Tracy McGrady remains one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history. A lethal scorer everywhere he went on the court, McGrady suffered numerous injuries that slowed his role down. Drafted by Toronto in 1997 it took a coaching change and the drafting of his cousin, Vince Carter, to really get McGrady going. The pair were an electric combination full of athleticism and skill — if you haven’t watched their highlights you need to. Together the duo led the Raptors to their first-ever playoff appearance, but McGrady left for Orlando the following season. 

The move to the Magic resulted in the best for McGrady as he was voted as the most improved player in the league in his first season there. In Orlando, McGrady was a two-time NBA scoring leader, two-time All-NBA selection, and made the All-Star game in all four of his seasons. To this day he still holds several Orlando Magic franchise records.

After four seasons in Orlando, T-Mac was traded to the Houston Rockets where he had his best moment. In a game against the Spurs, McGrady scored 13 points in the final 33 seconds to erase an eight-point deficit, notably hitting a pull-up three with about one second left to secure an 81-80 victory. After a series of season-ending injuries, McGrady bounced around for his final two years in the league. Following his retirement, McGrady was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2017.

4. Kevin Garnett

Selected fifth overall in 1995 by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Kevin Garnett became the first player since 1975 to be drafted directly out of high school. KG had an almost immediate impact in Minnesota, carrying the franchise to its first-ever playoff appearance in his second season. The peak of his Timberwolves career came in the 2003-04 season when he won league MVP and helped Minnesota finish as the West’s best team and make the Conference Finals. 

After 12 years in Minnesota, he was traded to the Boston Celtics to team up with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. In his first season in Boston, he helped the Celtics win the NBA Championship and won the Defensive Player of the Year award. He left a lasting legacy in the NBA and is still probably the first face that comes to mind when talking about the Timberwolves.

Throughout his career, Garnett was an elite post threat and one of the best rebounders the league has ever seen. He is the only NBA player to finish his career with at least 25,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, 5,000 assists, 1,500 steals, and 1,500 blocks, illustrating his impact in every facet of the game. He was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2020.

3. Moses Malone

Moses Malone was the first player to go directly from high school to the professional league. He was drafted into the American Basketball Association (ABA) by the Utah Stars in 1974 before becoming a member of the Buffalo Braves when the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976.

After playing only two games in Buffalo, Malone was shipped off to the Houston Rockets where he became a two-time MVP and reached the NBA Finals in 1981. Malone became a problem in the paint for teams with his outstanding rebounding ability that saw him lead the league in rebounds in three of his last four seasons in Houston.

Following his stint in Houston, Malone joined the Philadelphia 76ers where he won his second straight MVP award while leading the team to an NBA Championship in which he was also named Finals MVP. Malone was one of the best rebounders to step foot on an NBA court and is up there with Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the best centers of their generation.

2. Kobe Bryant

The late great Kobe Bryant was one of the most influential people in basketball. Kobe was drafted in 1996 by the Charlotte Hornets who infamously traded him the same night to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac. Once Bryant was in LA he quickly rose to stardom, teaming up with Shaquille O’Neal to win three consecutive NBA titles. 

There are very few players that had the intense mentality and work ethic of Bryant, which propelled him to be one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Over his 20-year career, Bryant dominated in every aspect of the game. He could do things that only some guy named Michael Jordan had ever done. 

Bryant ended his career in the only way possible, dropping 60 points in his final game against the Utah Jazz. During his career, Bryant was a five-time NBA Champion, two-time scoring leader, selected to 18 straight All-Star Games, and won the 2008 NBA MVP. 

There are not really words to describe Bryant’s impact on the game, but his “Mamba Mentality” and ferocious scoring ability have him forever considered one of the greatest scoring threats and players the NBA has ever seen.

1. LeBron James

The only spot for a king is at the top and sure enough, LeBron James is the best NBA player that we have seen come straight out of high school. The most hyped-up player in high school sports history has lived up to every inch of the acclaim.

Drafted first overall in 2003, James quickly became a household name, winning Rookie of the Year honors. In only his second season, he led the league in minutes played. By his fourth year, he was already considered one of the best players in the league and led a bunch of no-names on the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals.

King James is going to most likely break the all-time NBA scoring mark needing just 1,326 more points to pass Kareem for the top spot. Only once in his career has he scored less than that in a season and that came in the shortened Covid-19 season.

Minus being an all-time great scorer, James is one of the best players at getting the most out of his teammates. In the 2020 season, he led the league in assists while winning his fourth NBA title and fourth Finals MVP award. The end of his career is slowly approaching but at age 37, James is still competing with the best.


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