Stay In School: 15 High Schoolers Who Had No Business In The NBA Draft
When Kevin Garnett retired last week, fans around the world remembered his lasting legacy in the NBA. On the court, he was an athletic freak who could do just about anything. Off the court, he became the first high school player to get picked in the NBA draft in two decades when the Minnesota Timberwolves selected him fifth in 1995. And since KG didn’t take too long to become a force to be reckoned with, his selection opened the floodgates for a plethora of high school players hoping to hear their names called by David Stern in the annual NBA draft.
By 2006, it had become overkill, as countless high school players put their names in the draft pool, only to fail miserably in the NBA, or not play in the NBA at all. The league put its collective foot down that year, and instituted new rules that would bar almost all fresh high school graduates from applying for the draft, and it was mainly because there were so many Robert Swifts, Jonathan Benders, and Kwame Browns failing to live up to expectations as lottery picks out of high school.
Aside from Swift, Bender, Brown, and others of their ilk, there were other high school draftees who weren’t lottery picks, and likewise failed to make a splash in the NBA, if given the chance at all. Here are 15 high school draft hopefuls who should have given college ball a try, instead of foolishly taking a chance on the NBA.
- JACKIE BUTLER (UNDRAFTED, 2004)
Originally part of the class of 2003, Butler first committed to Mississippi State that year, but was declared academically ineligible, forcing him to play an extra year of high school ball. Somehow, he had dropped from Top 50 to the bottom of the Top 100 in that extra year, but that still didn’t dissuade him from joining the 2004 draft instead of signing with Tennessee as planned.
Butler wasn’t drafted that year, just like you’d expect from someone who was barely among America’s top high school recruits. But he was good enough to get over 13 minutes a game at center for a bad New York Knicks team in 2005-06, and even won a championship ring with the Spurs the next season.
- OUSMANE CISSE (2ND ROUND, #47, 2001)
Originally from Mali, Cisse played high school basketball in Montgomery, Alabama, where he established himself as a hard-working, athletic shot blocker at the four and the five. Playing for St. Jude HS, he averaged a triple-double as a senior – 29 points, 16 rebounds, and 13 BLOCKS a game. He was a fairly heavily-recruited player, but one thing was holding his back from NBA stardom.
Not only was Cisse listed at 6’9”-235, which wouldn’t have cut it for a 2000s power forward in most cases, he was apparently an inch or two shorter in reality. And pretty injury-prone. He was cut by Orlando, Denver, and Toronto before he could play a game for any of those teams, and spent his pro career as a Harlem Globetrotter, and ultimately a literal globetrotter who also played in the D-League, Israel, Cyprus, and France.
- JAMES LANG (2ND ROUND, #48, 2003)
As he had weighed close to 400 pounds in high school, yet graduated as one of the top big man prospects in his class, the ideal route for Lang would have been to go to college, round himself into shape while playing NCAA ball, and give the NBA draft a try in a couple of years, at the very least. Instead, the 6’10” center, who was down to about 325 on the day of the 2003 draft, spurned a commitment to Louisville and got drafted late in the second round by the New Orleans Hornets.
Due to his weight issues, Lang was a mainstay of the D-League, and played a few games in Spain while waiting for an NBA team to take a chance on him. He finally got his chance in 2006 with the Washington Wizards, playing only 11 games and averaging only about five minutes a game. Sadly, his basketball career ended in 2009 when a stroke left him partially paralyzed.
- LEON SMITH (1ST ROUND, #29, 1999)
Playing for Chicago’s Martin Luther King HS, Smith was a long, lean, and athletic 6’10” power forward and one of the top 15 prospects in his senior class. And while he would have been an attractive recruit for any major college team, he had made it clear from day one that he had no intent of attending college, and wanted to jump from the preps to the pros.
After Smith was selected in the 1999 draft, it didn’t take long for the red flags to start flying. He never got to play for the Dallas Mavericks, who had acquired his rights from the San Antonio Spurs soon after they drafted him, and it was on account of myriad mental and psychological issues. Eventually, all he got in the NBA were a couple cups of coffee with the Atlanta Hawks (14 games in 2002) and Seattle SuperSonics (one game in 2004).
- RICKY SANCHEZ (2ND ROUND, #35, 2005)
We were tempted to include Sanchez’s fellow IMG Academy alumnus Satnam Singh in this list. But since he was only drafted in 2015 and the jury still may be out on the Indian giant, IMG will be represented by Ricky Sanchez, who was part of the last class of direct preps-to-pros hopefuls in the NBA draft. A skinny 6’11” power forward from Puerto Rico, Sanchez was a good shooter and very agile for his size, and probably had a shot at making someone’s bench in the NBA. Instead, the rights to his selection became a punch line, as they were traded from Portland to Denver, then to Philadelphia, then to Memphis, then to Miami over a course of almost six years.
While he’s known in America as the inspiration for the 76ers-centric podcast The Rights to Ricky Sanchez, he has, at least, carved out a respectable career playing for Puerto Rico’s national team and various international leagues.
- KORLEONE YOUNG (2ND ROUND, 40TH, 1998)
Entering the 1998 NBA draft was an offer this Korleone should have refused. Bad Godfather puns aside, Young was a high school star in both his home state of Kansas and noted Division I player factory Hargrave Military Academy. He was highly-recruited by several college teams, but by that time, he had made up his mind and decided to try his luck in the draft.
Alas, the 1998 draft was not a particularly good one for small forward hopefuls. And no one was mistaking Young with Paul Pierce, who went 10th overall and had a stellar NBA career, or even Roshown McLeod, who went 20th and was gone from the NBA in three seasons. Young was picked 40th overall, and played only three NBA games before playing in the U.S. minor leagues and several overseas teams.
- LENNY COOKE (UNDRAFTED, 2002)
Lenny Cooke was an electrifying 6’6” wingman who was often mentioned alongside Amar’e Stoudemire (9th overall in 2002) and Carmelo Anthony as one of the high school class of 2002’s finest, and once had future NBA legend written all over him. But a poor work ethic and the stigma of being owned by LeBron James at the 2001 Nike ABCD Camp caused his stock to tumble a bit.
Cooke entered the 2002 draft when his agent told him he had a solid chance of getting drafted in the first round. But when his name was not called by any one of the NBA’s 29 teams at that time, and no one showed interest in giving him a shot as a free agent, he played his rookie pro season in the USBL, and bounced around in the U.S. minor leagues and overseas pro leagues, including my country’s own Philippine Basketball Association, where he was a standout American “import.” He was only 24 when he suffered a career-ending Achilles tendon injury while playing for the Continental Basketball Association in 2006.
- NDUDI EBI (1ST ROUND, #26, 2003)
The Minnesota Timberwolves’ salary cap-tampering move to acquire Joe Smith in 1998 was much ado about nothing, as the former first-overall pick was as average as his name suggests. That scandal forced the Wolves to forfeit their first-round picks in 2001 and 2002, but 2003 selection Ndudi Ebi was not the way Minnesota wanted to return to the first round. Perhaps he should have honored his commitment to the University of Arizona instead.
After a rookie season where Ebi averaged less than 0.8 points in under two minutes a game, he greatly improved on those numbers in 2004-05, averaging 13.5 points and 8.0 rebounds and shooting 52.4% from the field. The catch? Those numbers were posted in two games, both no-bearing season-enders where he was essentially seeing garbage time.