Before 2006 when the NBA instituted the so-called One-and-Done Rule, it wasn’t uncommon for a few players every year to take their talents from the high school graduation stage to the NBA Draft stage. Nowadays, elite high school basketball players are more or less forced to play one season of college basketball or head overseas before entering the NBA Draft. One day soon, that rule will (hopefully) change, allowing the best high school players to earn a living straight out of high school. In the meantime, let’s take a look back at some of the most successful NBA players of all-time who skipped college
10. Darryl Dawkins
It’d be rude to talk about players who went to the NBA straight out of high school without mentioning the first one who did it. With several members of his family living in poverty, Dawkins chose to go to the NBA right away to make money and support his family rather than play college basketball despite scholarship offers from blue-blood programs like Kentucky and Kansas. He ended up going fifth overall and received a seven-year contract worth a total of $1 million from the 76ers.
While he was never an all-star caliber player, he was averaging double-figures by his third NBA season and became a key contributor for the 76ers while playing alongside greats like Julius Erving. He helped Philadelphia reach the NBA Finals three times during his time there, eventually playing with the Nets, Jazz, and Pistons as well during a 14-year career. Dawkins played his last NBA season in 1989 but continued to play for more than a decade after that in various leagues around the world, including a season with Harlem Globetrotters. Sadly, he passed away from a heart attack in 2015 at the age of 58.
9. Sean Kemp
Kemp was one of the top high schoolers in the country in a class that was absolutely loaded. However, it was off-court issues that ultimately pushed him to head straight to the NBA. He enrolled at Kentucky, but his poor SAT scores made him ineligible to play as a freshman. Kemp left school after a couple of months after allegedly stealing a pair of gold chains from a teammate, although no formal charges were ever pressed against him. He enrolled in a community college but never played, ultimately declaring for the NBA Draft and getting selected 17th overall by the Seattle SuperSonics.
As a rookie, Kemp started just one game, but he started to come into his own the following year, averaging 15 points and over eight rebounds. By his fourth season, he began a run of six straight all-star appearances, as well as three straight seasons of being named to the All-NBA Second Team. Kemp ended up playing 14 seasons in the NBA, although he faded toward the end. After being out of the league for two seasons, Kemp attempted a comeback but couldn’t quite get himself back on an NBA roster, although he would play in Italy after his days in the NBA were done.
8. Jermaine O’Neal
There’s no doubt that O’Neal was one of the best high school players in the country as a senior. But poor SAT scores also pushed him to make the jump. It also helped that both O’Neal and Kevin Garnett hailed from South Carolina. After watching Garnett’s success going from high school to the NBA while O’Neal was still a senior in high school, he followed the same path. O’Neal went to the Trailblazers 17th overall and at the time of his debut, he was the youngest player to play in the NBA, doing so just 22 days after his 18th birthday.
Despite drafting him, Portland didn’t reap the rewards of O’Neal, who never averaged more than 4.5 points per game during his first four seasons. However, a trade to Indiana in the summer of 2000 helped to jumpstart his career. From 2002 to 2007, O’Neal made the All-Star Team in six straight seasons, all with the Pacers. He also took home Most Improved Players honors in 2002. Ultimately, he played 18 seasons in the NBA for seven different teams, which more than made up for struggling on his SATs.
7. Tracy McGrady
It wasn’t until the summer before his senior year of high school that McGrady was on anybody’s radar as far as being a top player. However, he made that ascent quickly and was Mr. Basketball USA in 1997. McGrady looked to be on his way to play at Kentucky but opted instead to give the NBA a shot. The Raptors took a chance on him with the 9th overall pick in the 1997 NBA Draft and a star was soon born.
Of course, McGrady’s success in the NBA wasn’t immediate. It took a couple of years for the scrawny but talented kid to figure things out. McGrady finally came around in his third season in Toronto, only to sign with the Magic as a free agent the following summer. The move to Orlando was followed by a string of seven straight all-star appearances for McGrady. He also made the All-NBA First Team twice and won two NBA scoring titles during that span. When all was said and done, McGrady played 16 seasons of pro basketball, including one in China. However, his teams never excelled in the playoffs until his final season when he was merely a role player with the Spurs on their way to the NBA Finals.
6. Amar’e Stoudamire
Despite attending five different high schools and missing his entire junior season, Stoudamire was the top high school player in the country as a senior. He initially committed to play at Memphis but instead decided to skip the middle man and go right to the NBA. The Suns drafted him with the 9th overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft and scored immediate dividends when Stoudamire won NBA Rookie of the Year.
Over the years, Stoudamire continued to improve, becoming a huge part of the Suns. Knee problems would eventually slow him down, but not before he became a six-time all-star, and fittingly, not until after he signed with the Knicks. Stoudamire called it a career in the NBA in 2016 after 14 seasons in the league but continued to play in both Israel and China. It turns out, Stoudamire had plenty left in the tank, even with his bad knees, helping teams in Israel win championships.
5. Dwight Howard
With Howard, there was little doubt that he would make the jump straight from high school to the NBA. As a senior, he won just about every high school player of the year award given out. The fact that he idolized Kevin Garnett, who also made the jump from high school to the pros, made the decision all the easier. His choice was no doubt justified when the Orlando Magic made him the first overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, taking him over Emeka Okafor, a polished and accomplished college player.
While most young big men tend to struggle early in their NBA careers, Howard made an immediate impact. He soon became the youngest player to average a double-double and record 20 or more rebounds in a game. Howard would continue to get better while serving as a key figure in Orlando’s rebuilding project. In his fifth season, Howard carried the Magic all the way to the NBA Finals. Since being traded from the Magic to the Lakers in 2012, Howard has bounced around but continued to play at a high level for many years. He played over 15 seasons in the league, going to the All-Star game eight times. He led the league in rebounding five times, was named Defensive Players of the Year three times, and was a five-time member of the All-NBA First Team.
4. Moses Malone
One year before Darryl Dawkins went to the NBA out of high school, Malone was drafted by the ABA, becoming the first player of note to skip college and go pro. In high school, Malone led his team to back-to-back undefeated seasons as a junior and senior, winning two state championships in Virginia. He was set to play at Maryland but changed his mind after being drafted in the third round of the ABA Draft by the Utah Stars. Malone played two seasons in the ABA before the ABA-NBA merger and following some complications after the merger, he began his NBA career in 1976 with the Houston Rockets.
It only took Malone a couple of seasons in the NBA to prove that he was an all-star caliber player. In fact, he proved that in 12 consecutive seasons from 1978 to 1989. During that time, he also took home three MVP awards and won NBA Finals MVP while leading the 76ers to a championship in 1983. The 6’10’’ center also led the NBA in rebounding six times and was even on the NBA All-Defensive First Team during the championship campaign in 1983. When all was said and done, Malone finished his career among the all-time leaders in both points and rebounds and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
3. Kevin Garnett
If you’ve read this far, you know that Garnett served as inspiration for multiple players who ended up making the jump from high school to the NBA, as he was the first to do so in 20 years. During his high school days, Garnett was a First-Team Parade All-American as both a junior and a senior, winning Mr. Basketball USA as a senior. Clearly, he had the skills to make the jump, although his test scores complicated the process of going to college and made his decision a little easier. If he had gone to college, Garnett says he would have attended Maryland. Instead, he was the fifth overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, going to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Once in the NBA, Garnett wasn’t a star right off the bat, but he undoubtedly proved that he belonged, averaging over 10 points and six rebounds per game as a rookie. He would end up becoming synonymous with the Timberwolves, spending his first 12 seasons in Minnesota. Of course, Garnett was traded to Boston in 2007 and immediately hoped the Celtics win the NBA title. After a stopover in Brooklyn, he fittingly finished his career back in Minnesota. In the end, he played 21 seasons in the NBA, earning 15 all-star selections and becoming one of four players in NBA history to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors during his career. He’s one of the all-time greats and a no-doubt Hall of Famer.
2. LeBron James
One day, King James might top this list, but not quite yet. Unlike many other players, there was never much talk about the possibility of James playing college basketball. As a junior, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and labeled by some as “The Chosen One.” In fact, he attempted to get the NBA to change its rules so that he could have jumped to the league before his senior year of high school. He wasn’t able to do so but would eventually go first overall in the 2003 NBA Draft to the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team located a mere 40 miles from his hometown of Akron.
As we all know, James has not disappointed. He was an all-star in his second pro season and has made the All-Star Team every year since. During his prime years, James won MVP honors four times in five years. He also led the Miami Heat to back-to-back NBA championships before returning to Cleveland and finally giving the Cavs a championship more than a decade after he was drafted. He’s likely to go down as the most hyped player to enter the NBA, as well as one of the best and most talented in the history of the game.
1. Kobe Bryant
Even with all that LeBron has accomplished, the late Kobe Bean Bryant is still the best player to make the jump straight from high school to the NBA. As the son of a former NBA player, he was a prolific high school player. Like many others, after seeing Kevin Garnett go straight to the NBA, Bryant started considering the idea. Despite solid SAT scores that would have ensured admission anywhere and interest from the likes of Duke, Villanova, North Carolina, and Michigan, Bryant chose the NBA. The Charlotte Hornets drafted him 13th overall in the 1996 NBA Draft but was soon traded to the Lakers in a prearranged trade. He moved to Los Angeles and signed his contract when he was just 17 years old. The rest, as they say, is history.
Still young and thin, Bryant started just seven games over his first two seasons in the league. However, there was no doubt that he had the ability and the work ethic to become one of the all-time greats. By his fourth season, Bryant teamed up with Shaquille O’Neal to deliver the first of three consecutive NBA titles from 2000 to 2002. Bryant would later be the star when the Lakers won two more titles in 2009 and 2010. When his career was over, Bryant had played 20 seasons, winning five titles and two MVP awards. He was an all-star in all but two of his 20 seasons and was also an All-Defensive First Team selection nine times. Sadly, he died along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash in 2020, cutting short a promising post-playing career that already included an Academy Award. Bryant also died before he could be elected to the Hall of Fame, forcing him to be inducted posthumously.