Best Prep-to-Pro NBA Players
Best Prep-to-Pro NBA Players

by Ben Leibowitz

It's been 10 years since the NBA's one-and-done rule was put in effect. PointAfter looked back and ranked every prep-to-pro player -- from Kwame to Kobe -- following the NBA/ABA merger.

In 2005, the National Basketball Association mandated that future draft prospects must be at least 19 years old and a year removed from high school before they can become eligible for the NBA draft. Thus, the prep-to-pro era of professional basketball reached its end.

Prior to the rule change and after the NBA/ABA merger, however, 39 players were drafted to the NBA straight out of high school. Of those 39, 36 went on to play at least one game in the pros.

PointAfter, a sports data visualization site that's part of Graphiq, set out to rank every prep-to-pro player from worst to best. The final order was guided primarily by each player's career win shares, a stat that estimates the number of team wins contributed by a player. We used our best judgment to make tweaks where appropriate, using advanced stats from NBAMath.com.

We'll start with a crop of dishonorable mentions that doesn't include Kwame Brown. In fact, the big fella actually outranks more than 10 other players on the countdown.

Note: Only players since the NBA/ABA merger were considered for this ranking. That excludes Reggie Harding, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby from the NBA, as well as ABA players like Moses Malone and Connie Hawkins.

Additionally, players who went to college/community college but did not play there (Shawn Kemp, Stephen Jackson), attempted the prep-to-pro route only to go undrafted and never play in the NBA (Lenny Cooke, DeAngelo Collins) or spent a year playing overseas instead of attending college (Brandon Jennings, Emmanuel Mudiay) will not be included in this ranking.

Dishonorable Mentions: Korleone Young, James Lang, Ndudi Ebi, Leon Smith, Robert Swift

 

The subject of a 2013 feature story by Jonathan Abrams for Grantland, Korleone Young lasted all of three games and 15 minutes in the NBA after being drafted in the second round (40th overall) by the Detroit Pistons in 1998.

Once a promising young high school star, Young is now one of the faces associated with the NBA rule change requiring players to spend a year out of high school before being draft eligible.

Per Abrams' article, Alvin Gentry -- who was Young's head coach with the Pistons -- said, "Korleone was one of those kids that if he would've gone to college, even for a year, he could've had a doggone decent pro career. But he was so deficient in so many areas that he just wasn't ready. He wasn't ready for this league."

A combination of injuries, poor life choices and being ill-equipped to handle the stresses of NBA life directly out of high school ensured Young would never play another minute in the pros after his first 15.

Robert Swift played four seasons before flaming out, while everyone else played less than two years in the NBA. These five players bringing up the rear in our ranking combine for 2.2 career win shares, which is truly abysmal.

31. Jonathan Bender

Former Indiana Pacers forward Jonathan Bender.

 

Seasons Played: 8
Career Win Shares: 3.8

The Toronto Raptors drafted Jonathan Bender No. 5 overall in 1999, opting then to trade him to the Indiana Pacers for Antonio Davis. Bender was selected directly ahead of All-Stars Wally Szczerbiak and Richard "Rip" Hamilton. Additional All-Stars Shawn Marion, Ron Artest, Andrei Kirilenko and Manu Ginobili were all drafted later on.

Bender was a tantalizing prospect as a 6-foot-11 big who projected to play out on the wing rather than in the post (think: Kevin Durant). However, the prep-to-pro never got acclimated to the NBA before a rash of knee injuries decimated his career. He played just seven games in 2004-05 in his age-24 season, then only two games the season after that. He missed three seasons from 2006-2009, returning in 2009-10 for an uneventful 25-game stint with the New York Knicks.

30. Sebastian Telfair

 

Seasons Played: 10
Career Win Shares: 5.0

As a highlight reel high school prospect who dazzled fans with remarkable ballhandling and flashy passes, Sebastian Telfair eventually found himself beside LeBron James on the cover of SLAM Magazine with the caption, "Sebastian Telfair & LeBron James are about to rule the world."

Well ... not exactly.

King James went on to greatness in the NBA, but Telfair's game didn't translate well. He never reached double-digit scoring in a season, shot 39 percent from the field for his career and maxed out with a career-high 5.9 assists per game in 2007-08. Even as a backup point guard who could lock in defensively, there were better options around the league.

29. Darius Miles

Portland Trail Blazers forward Darius Miles poses for a photo during media day in 2007.

 

Seasons Played: 7
Career Win Shares: 9.5

A highly-touted NBA prospect for his size (6-foot-9 small forward) and athletic ability, Darius Miles never even touched the immense hype attached to his name.

Selected No. 3 overall in the historically dreadful 2000 NBA Draft, Miles never developed an outside shot and was out of the league before his 28th birthday.

28. DeShawn Stevenson

 

Seasons Played: 13
Career Win Shares: 12.1

As Yahoo Sports' Kelly Dwyer put it in 2013, DeShawn Stevenson somehow managed to carve out a 13-year NBA career despite shooting under 40 percent eight times and registering a single-digit player efficiency rating (15 is average) nine times.

Perhaps best remembered for calling LeBron James "overrated," Stevenson won a championship ring with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.

So, despite being consistently mediocre over the course of a forgettable career, Stevenson has more rings than Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Steve Nash, John Stockton, Allen Iverson and Patrick Ewing combined.

27. DeSagana Diop

Dallas Mavericks center DeSagana Diop warms up prior to a game against the Denver Nuggets in 2009.

 

Seasons Played: 12
Career Win Shares: 12.8

If you needed a quality shot-blocker back in the day while playing NBA2K, there were worse choices than DeSagana Diop. But as far as being a reliable player in real life, Diop didn't move the needle much.

The Senegalese center's size allowed him to remain in the league for 12 seasons as a backup big man, but Diop only averaged two points and 3.7 rebounds during his NBA tenure.

He was a respectable rim protector, but the Oak Hill Academy product didn't bring much else to the table.

26. Travis Outlaw

 

Seasons Played: 11
Career Win Shares: 16.5

Travis Outlaw began his career with the Portland Trail Blazers, where he cobbled together some rock-solid years as a role player off the bench. His career took a turn during the 2010 offseason, however, via a windfall of cash.

After missing out on free-agent prizes named LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, etc., the New Jersey Nets signed Outlaw to a five-year, $35 million contract to be the team's new starting small forward. That pairing didn't pan out.

As Colin Stephenson wrote for NJ.com, "Outlaw [...] came to training camp in poor shape and struggled all year. He averaged 9.2 points, but shot just 37.5 percent from the field, and quickly lost his starting position." The Nets ultimately decided to waive Outlaw a year later via the amnesty clause.

He signed with the Sacramento Kings after his release, but hasn't played in the NBA since 2014.

25. Gerald Green

 

Seasons Played: 9
Career Win Shares: 13.9

Speaking of great leapers, Gerald Green entered the league as a raw talent with seemingly boundless athleticism. The 2007 Slam Dunk champion risked being painted with the "just a dunker" brush early on, but he managed to shake that label as a veteran with the Phoenix Suns. Green drained a career-best 40 percent of his three-pointers in 2013-14 for a 48-win Suns squad, then hit 35.4 percent of his treys the season after.

He had a down year for the Miami Heat in 2015-16, sinking just 39.2 percent of his shots and 32.3 percent of his threes. If he's going to climb any higher on this list, he'll need to find a good team fit moving forward.

24. Andray Blatche

 

Seasons Played: 9
Career Win Shares: 19.2

Andray Blatche established himself as a steady young contributor for the Washington Wizards. He averaged 14.1 points and 6.3 rebounds during the 2009-10 season, then notched 16.8 points and 8.2 rebounds the season after that.

But after seven seasons in Washington and two spent with the Brooklyn Nets, Blatche opted to play overseas for the Xinjiang Flying Tigers. He was a Chinese Basketball Association All-Star in 2015.

23. Kwame Brown

 

Seasons Played: 12
Career Win Shares: 20.8

Over the years, Kwame Brown has become synonymous with the term "bust." The former No. 1 overall pick of the 2001 draft never came close to living up to that billing. In his rookie year out of Glynn Academy, Brown averaged 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 57 games played while shooting a paltry 38.7 percent.

But while Brown's rookie year was a train wreck, he wasn't exactly as terrible as many fans choose to remember. Sure, he never should have been asked to be a team's starting center -- as he was with virtually every team he played for -- but Kwame did have some respectable years.

For the Los Angeles Lakers in 2006-07, for instance, Brown averaged 8.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks while making 59.1 percent of his shots. Again, he was never great, but he served as a serviceable role player in many situations. Being tied to the No. 1 overall choice throughout his career is really what crippled his reputation.

22. Eddy Curry

 

Seasons Played: 11
Career Win Shares: 21.7

Eddy Curry was also drafted in 2001, three spots behind Kwame at No. 4 overall. He cobbled together a (slightly) superior career by win shares, but that's not saying much.

The hulking 7-footer often struggled with his weight. Curry did have a solid year in 2006-07 with the New York Knicks, when he averaged 19.5 points and 7.0 rebounds while shooting 57.6 percent from the floor. However, he finished second in the league that year with 295 turnovers.

In that aforementioned season, Curry played 81 games. He played just 85 games in six seasons after the fact due to injuries (missing all of 2010-11).

21. C.J. Miles

 

Seasons Played: 11
Career Win Shares: 22.4

After being selected in the second round of the 2005 draft by the Utah Jazz, C.J. Miles didn't get much of an opportunity. He played fewer than 12 minutes per game in each of his first three seasons, but became a steady contributor and starting cog from there.

A career 35.2 percent shooter, Miles has relied upon his respectable stroke from long range to impact games.

20. Martell Webster

 

Seasons Played: 10
Career Win Shares: 24.7

Martell Webster didn't play in the NBA last season and likely won't again, but he was a solid role player for many years with Portland, Minnesota and Washington.

While he averaged double-digit points in a season just twice, Webster is a career 38.2 percent shooter from beyond the arc. Portland's decision to draft him No. 6 overall in 2005 over guys like David Lee, Channing Frye, Monta Ellis and others wasn't ideal, but he wasn't a total flop at the NBA level.

19. Kendrick Perkins

 

Seasons Played: 13
Career Win Shares: 27.9

In recent years, Kendrick Perkins has become an NBA punching bag. He's often the butt of jokes for his ineptitude and lack of unique skills on the court, but the fact remains he was an integral piece of a championship team (2008 Celtics). Additionally, his injury in the 2010 NBA Finals is often cited by Celtics fans as the reason Boston fell in Game 7 against the Lakers.

Ultimately, Perkins is a post-bound bruiser who sets hard screens and picks fights like a hockey enforcer. His talents as a basketball player are slim, but there's a reason he's carved out a 13-year career.

18. Dorell Wright

 

Seasons Played: 11
Career Win Shares: 25.9

Dorell Wright did not play in the NBA in 2015-16 after playing only sparingly for the Portland Trail Blazers in 2014-15. Throughout his 11-year career, he's been seen as a streaky shooter, decent rebounder and (at times) solid defender.

Back in the 2010-11 season, Wright led the league with 194 three-pointers. No surprise, that was Wright's peak in the pros, as he averaged 16.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists while starting all 82 games for the Warriors.

17. Shaun Livingston

 

Seasons Played: 11
Career Win Shares: 23.5

Though Shaun Livingston has a lower win share total than players below him on our list, we opted to account for the fact that the 6-foot-7 point guard was forced to overcome the most gruesome knee injury in the history of the sport.

In 2007, Livingston crumpled to the floor following a fast-break layup, tearing his ACL, MCL, PCL and lateral meniscus while also dislocating his patella and tibia-femoral joint.

There was a chance Livingston would lose his leg due to amputation, but he's defied the odds by coming back and playing a significant role on an elite Golden State Warriors team.

16. Andrew Bynum

 

Seasons Played: 8
Career Win Shares: 37.4

The NBA community can only wonder what would have been if Andrew Bynum genuinely gave a crap about the game of basketball. He boasted an imposing physical frame, good footwork and a nice inside touch, but he ultimately didn't want to work hard enough to stay in the league -- much less become an NBA great.

The No. 10 overall pick of the 2005 draft by the Los Angeles Lakers, Bynum often struggled with knee injuries and missed a lot of time. When he was healthy, however, he was a truly impactful big man.

During the 2011-12 season with the Lakers, Bynum averaged 18.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per contest en route to his only All-Star nod. From there, his career derailed when he was traded to Philly in the blockbuster Dwight Howard trade. He played just 26 games after that elite season.

15. Lou Williams

 

Seasons Played: 11
Career Win Shares: 41.5

Lou Williams was selected in the second round of the 2005 draft by the Philadelphia 76ers. He spent the first seven seasons of his career in Philly, playing his best basketball in 2009-10 when he averaged 14 points, 4.2 assists, 2.9 assists and 1.3 steals while sinking 47 percent of his field goals.

Lou-Will became more of a one-dimensional scorer from there, but that didn't stop him from winning Sixth Man of the Year honors in 2015 after notching 15.5 points per game off the bench for the Toronto Raptors. Williams now suits up for the lowly Lakers.

14. Amir Johnson

 

Seasons Played: 11
Career Win Shares: 45.1

Amir Johnson doesn't often post eye-popping stats in the box score, but he's been among the NBA's most consistent defenders over the past decade.

Excluding his rookie year when he played just three games for the Detroit Pistons, Johnson has amassed positive defensive box plus-minus scores every year. His value over replacement player for his career sits at 17.4 and his career box plus-minus is 2.6.

The former second-round pick is unique in the sense that he can step out and shoot threes as well as block shots on defense. Few players in the league have that skill set.

13. Al Harrington

Former Denver Nuggets forward Al Harrington.

 

Seasons Played: 14
Career Win Shares: 42.5

After a solid first half of his career spent with the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks, Al Harrington found his way to the 2006-07 Golden State Warriors -- a No. 8 seed that upset the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 postseason.

In many ways, Harrington was ahead of his time as a power forward who could stretch the floor with three-point shooting. According to Basketball Reference, Harrington spent 59 percent of his minutes at power forward and shot 35.2 percent from deep for his career.

Though he never made an All-Star team, Harrington averaged more than 17 points in a season four times.

12. J.R. Smith

 

Seasons Played: 12
Career Win Shares: 44.3

Throughout his NBA career, J.R. Smith has embodied the "shoot first, ask questions later" approach. He won Sixth Man of the Year as a member of the New York Knicks in 2013 by averaging 18.1 points 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 steals in 80 games (all off the bench).

He was acquired via trade by the Cleveland Cavaliers in January 2015, then won a championship ring in 2016 as LeBron James and Co. stunned the 73-win Warriors.

Smith has garnered a reputation for being a knucklehead, but he gained a lot of sympathy for his emotional postgame interview following Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. Smith reflected upon his NBA career, and praised his family for playing a big role in his success.

11. Jermaine O'Neal

 

Seasons Played: 18
Career Win Shares: 66.0

We're now starting to reach the upper echelon of prep-to-pro players.

From 2001-02 (when he won Most Improved Player) through 2006-07, O'Neal made six All-Star teams, two All-NBA Third Teams and one All-NBA Second Team. He also finished third in MVP voting in 2004 (behind Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan).

If you dig beyond the subjective accolades, however, O'Neal stakes a claim as being one of the most overrated NBA players of all time. According to NBAMath.com's Total Points Added metric -- which grades players on a per-possession basis for offense and defense -- O'Neal finished his career with -37.34 TPA (mostly due to poor postseason performance). Compared to the other big men above him on this list, that mark is truly terrible.

10. Al Jefferson

 

Seasons Played: 12
Career Win Shares: 67.1

"It ain't no secret around the league that I struggle with my defense," Jefferson told Grantland's Zach Lowe after signing with Charlotte. "My pick-and-roll defense is my weakness. And that's mind over matter. I just gotta suck it up, get my ass out there, and do it."

Jefferson was not a competent defender early in his career with Boston, Minnesota and even in Utah. However, Big Al was well aware of his shortcomings, and busted his rear end in Charlotte to become a better defensive player. Injuries have hindered his effectiveness of late, but Jefferson was a great scorer in his prime. He averaged more than 20 points per game in three different seasons. He made the All-NBA Third Team in 2014.

Oh, and compared to O'Neal -- a big man who admittedly has far more career accolades -- Jefferson has notched 207.23 TPA.

9. Rashard Lewis

 

Seasons Played: 16
Career Win Shares: 90.9

A 6-foot-10 sharpshooter from long range, Rashard Lewis was an integral part of the Seattle SuperSonics (RIP) and the Orlando Magic when they reached the NBA Finals in 2009.

Lewis won an NBA championship with the Miami Heat in 2013 and made two All-Star teams in his career. In 2009, Lewis led the NBA with 220 three-pointers made (on 39.7 percent shooting).

He racked up 90.9 career win shares despite not playing in the NBA past age 34.

8. Josh Smith

 

Seasons Played: 12
Career Win Shares: 51.0

During an extended tenure with the Atlanta Hawks to start his career, Josh Smith was one of the game's most dynamic talents. He could slash to the bucket and score, rebound, pass and rack up stocks (steals plus blocks). But for whatever reason, "J-Smoove" decided to start jacking up a bunch of threes as he got older.

A career 28.5-percent shooter from distance, Smith is quite clearly at his best when he's attacking the rim. That's what got him to be a borderline All-Star (and one of the game's most under-appreciated players) in Atlanta, but he's since become a chucker. No surprise, his numbers have taken a significant dip while playing for three teams over the past two seasons. His ineffective play even led Detroit to release Smith and eat the $26 million remaining on his contract.

It seems his best days are now behind him.

So, why does Smith rank above a six-time All-Star if he never made an All-Star team himself? According to NBAMath, Smith boasts a career TPA (the aforementioned metric) of 1,246.76. O'Neal's was -37.34.

Even with Smith's recent decline, his two-way impact over the course of many years in Atlanta was better than most give him credit for.

7. Amar'e Stoudemire

 

Seasons Played: 14
Career Win Shares: 92.5

During his offensive peak with the Seven-Seconds-or-Less Phoenix Suns, Amar'e Stoudemire was virtually unstoppable as a pick-and-roll scorer.

"STAT" and Steve Nash executed that play to perfection for many years in the desert, leading Stoudemire to make the All-NBA First Team once and All-NBA Team three times in a Suns jersey. The former No. 9 overall pick also won Rookie of the Year, added another All-NBA Second Team nod after leaving for New York, and reached six All-Star teams.

A lack of defense and a barrage of injuries prevented Amar'e from being considered an all-time great, but he's certainly among the best NBA players to go from high school straight to the pros.

6. Tyson Chandler

 

Seasons Played: 15
Career Win Shares: 92.7

Former Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star Tyson Chandler doesn't have quite the accolades of Stoudemire or O'Neal, but a championship ring and more than a decade of consistent play on both ends leapfrogs him to No. 6 on our list.

The 7-foot-1 skyscraper from Dominguez High School in Compton, California, was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 draft (taken one spot behind Kwame Brown and one slot ahead of Pau Gasol).

Chandler can certainly be described as a late bloomer, provided he never really caught on with the Chicago Bulls (the team that drafted him). His career really took off after he was traded to New Orleans to form a great basketball trio with Chris Paul and David West. Afterward, he went on to win a title with Dallas in 2011 before winning DPOY and being named an All-Star with the Knicks.

5. Tracy McGrady

 

Seasons Played: 15
Career Win Shares: 97.3

Tracy McGrady is one of the ultimate NBA "what-ifs."

Selected No. 9 overall by the Toronto Raptors in 1997, T-Mac only showed flashes of his future brilliance while in Canada. He maxed out by scoring 15.4 points per game for Toronto in his third professional season before being sent to the Orlando Magic via sign-and-trade. This was one of the worst NBA trades ever, as the Raptors netted only a future first-round pick in the deal, later selecting Fran Vazquez, who never played a minute in the NBA.

From there, McGrady made seven consecutive All-Star teams, finished fourth in MVP voting twice, was named to the All-NBA First Team (two times), Second Team (three times) and Third Team (two times), and established himself as one of the league's best all-around players.

Injuries derailed his Hall-of-Fame-caliber career, however, and a lack of any postseason success further tarnished his legacy. If his knees weren't so problematic, who knows how T-Mac would be remembered today.

4. Dwight Howard

 

Seasons Played: 12
Career Win Shares: 113.2

Unlike Kwame Brown, who did not live up to the billing of being a top pick, former No. 1 overall selection Dwight Howard delivered on the hype. The big man made eight consecutive All-Star teams while playing for the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, respectively.

He won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards from 2009-2011, finished second in MVP voting in 2011 and has a smattering of All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams to his name.

Also, under the watchful eye of head coach Stan Van Gundy, Howard guided the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals. He takes a lot of grief for seemingly not taking winning seriously, but Howard's résumé speaks for itself.

3. Kevin Garnett

 

Seasons Played: 21
Career Win Shares: 191.4

We've now officially reached rarified air with the top three prep-to-pro players of all time -- starting with Farragut Career Academy's Kevin Garnett.

The Big Ticket was named the league's Most Valuable Player in 2004 and won both Defensive Player of the Year and an NBA championship in 2008. He's a 15-time All-Star, nine-time All-Defensive First Team member and four-time All-NBA First Teamer.

He's the Minnesota Timberwolves' all-time leading scorer and one of the best power forwards of all time, but he still sits behind two players who went from high school straight to the pros.

2. Kobe Bryant

 

Seasons Played: 20
Career Win Shares: 172.7

Kobe Bryant actually has about 20 fewer win shares compared to KG, but we couldn't overlook his standing as a five-time champion, MVP and two-time Finals MVP.

He ranks No. 3 on the NBA's all-time scoring list behind only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone. He's won two scoring titles and two Olympic gold medals. He scored a career-high 81 points in one game and is viewed as the second-best shooting guard of all time behind Michael Jordan.

And yet ... the top spot is reserved for someone else.

1. LeBron James

 

Seasons Played: 13
Career Win Shares: 192.5

LeBron James has amassed approximately 20 more win shares than Kobe Bryant despite playing 13 seasons compared to Bryant's 20. He has four MVPs (and was likely hosed of a couple more) to Bryant's one. He's won three championships compared to Bryant's five, but James was the best player on all three of his title teams -- Kobe had Shaq as the team's best player for his first three rings.

Comparatively, King James averages more points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks in the regular season. He also shoots a better percentage from the field and the three-point line. The postseason comparison paints a similar picture save for three-point shooting, where Bryant holds a slight advantage (33.1 percent to 32.1 percent).

On top of it all, James is still just 31 years old. He has plenty of time to add to a legacy that already paints him as one of the all-time greats. Kobe was great, but LeBron is the best prep-to-pro in NBA history.

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NBA Basketball: "Best Prep-to-Pro NBA Players"