Coming out of high school straight into the NBA is of a lost art these days. Literally. The rules prevent it from even happening anymore. No player is allowed to make that life-altering leap, no matter how talented or freakishly athletic they may be.
Whether or not that’s fair to the players is a legitimate debate, but that’s a discussion for another day.
What we’re here to figure out is this: of those players who were allowed to make the jump before the rules changed, which ones did it best? In that vein, we’ve compiled a list of the seven best players to ever come straight outta high school.
And unless the rules wind up changing back some day, these will remain the seven best to do it for all time. Pretty heavy stuff, eh? No? Whatever. Here’s the rankings:
7. Rashard Lewis
Lewis is probably best remembered for his $115 million dollar disaster of a contract with the Magic, so it’s easy to forget that before he was ever an overpaid albatross, he was an underpaid assassin for years.
After being drafted out of Alief Elsik High School by the Sonics in 1998, he averaged 16.6 points and 5.8 rebounds over 9 seasons in Seattle, three times averaging over 20 points per game and 40% shooting from three.
He was one of the league’s first true “stretch fours,” a phrase which is now commonplace in the NBA lexicon thanks to players like him. He was also a key bench contributor to Miami’s 2012 championship.
6. Al Jefferson
Many fans may not know it, but the NBA’s biggest low-post threat came straight outta high school to the Boston Celtics in 2004.
He would need a few more years of polish before he became the Big Al we all know and revere today — the same Big Al who was the centerpiece in Boston’s trade for another player on this list — and thanks to these first few years of relative obscurity, many fans seem to be unaware of his college-less past.
But regardless of who knows it, Jefferson did make the leap from Prentiss High School straight to the world’s biggest basketball stage, where he’s gone on to average 17 points, 9.1 boards, and 1.3 blocks over his 11 seasons in the league. He’s averaged a double-double in four separate seasons throughout his career, and 20+ points in three.
5. Jermaine O’Neal
Over the tail end of Jermaine O’Neal’s career, his role has been reduced to that of a roving journeyman: effective, yet ultimately replaceable. But that wasn’t always the case.
For a good stretch in the mid-2000’s, O’Neal was one of the league’s premiere two-way players, putting up an average line of 18.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.4 swats per game in his eight seasons with the Pacers.
He led Indiana on a couple deep playoff runs over that time frame, and picked up six All-Star selections in the process. All that after starting out his career as the youngest player to ever play in an NBA game, at the tender age of 18 years and 53 days.
Despite knowing nothing else whatsoever about the school, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say Jermaine is probably the pride of Eau Claire High.
4. Tracy McGrady
Though he clocks in at number four on this list, T-Mac may very well be the best pure scorer to ever go straight from high school to the pros. Making the jump from Mount Zion Christian Academy in 1997, McGrady impressed for a few seasons in a supporting role for the Raptors before taking his game to a whole new level down in Orlando.
Over four seasons in a Magic uniform, T-Mac torched foes to the tune of 28.1 points per game, to go along with 7 boards, 5.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block each contest.
Twice he led the league in scoring — 2002-03 and 2003-04 — and finished in the top ten in that category a total of six times. For his career he racked up seven All-Star selections, seven All-NBA selections, and countless highlight reel dunks.
If he’d enjoyed any real success in the playoffs, he may be a few spots higher up in these rankings.
3. Kevin Garnett
The Big Ticket essentially wrote the book on coming straight outta high school. When he was drafted by the Timberwolves in 1995, KG became the first player to make the high-school-to-NBA jump since 1975, paving the way for all the other players on this list to draw legitimate NBA interest.
Oh, and he’s also gone on to enjoy a surefire Hall-of-Fame career over his 20 season in the league — so there’s that, too.
Garnett led the league in rebounding four times (from ’03 to ’07), finished in the top five in that category seven times, and the top ten 10 times. He was the league MVP in the 2003-04 season, and the Defensive Player of the Year in 2007-08, the same season in which he led the Celtics to the title.
He accumulated 15 All-Star selections and 9 All-NBA nods over his illustrious career. He’s one of four players in history to ever lead their team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals all in the same season, along with Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, and LeBron James.
Farragut Academy must be awful proud. And whatever college KG was thinking about going to must be awful pissed.
2. Kobe Bryant
Kobe came straight outta Lower Merion High school in 1996, becoming the first guard ever to be taken at such a young and raw age. Since then, he’s only gone on to win five NBA titles, appear in seven Finals, win an MVP award, and make 17 All-Star teams and 12 All-NBA teams.
He led the league in scoring twice, averaged 30+ points per game three times, and also made 12 All-Defensive teams to boot.
There’s not much more I can say about Kobe that hasn’t already been said. I could sit here and keep rattling off his laundry list of accomplishments, but I’d be here all goddamn day. A legitimate case could be made that he belongs at the top of this list. He’s one of the ten greatest players to ever pick up a basketball.
1. LeBron James
Four MVP awards. Two Finals MVP awards. Two NBA titles and five Finals appearances (and counting). A scoring title. Eleven straight years averaging at least 26 points, 6 boards, and 6 dimes. The best player in the world.
LeBron is The King, and he is such for a reason. After making the leap out of St. Vincent-St. Mary’s in 2004, LeBron has been the consensus best player in the league for almost that entire span of time.
Nobody has done it better than him, whether from college, high school, overseas or otherwise. Putting anybody else — other than maybe, possibly Kobe — atop this list would have been absolute blasphemy.