Top 10 American Players Who Never Played College Basketball


Sep 2, 2023

While it’s no longer a viable method to reaching the NBA, basketball fans will never forget the era of high schoolers taking their shot at the professional ranks. From LeBron James to Kwame Brown, the range of outcomes was so volatile that it made for a dangerous but ambitious decision for the league’s top prospects.

Looking back on the players who took the gamble, we rank the top ten to reach the NBA straight out of high school.

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1. LeBron James

The indisputable GOAT of the non-college basketball rout, LeBron was a superstar by 17. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated in his St. Vincent-St. Mary uniform with the title “The Chosen One.” While facing ridiculous expectations for a teenager, he somehow exceeded them by becoming the all-time leading scorer in NBA history.

2. Kobe Bryant

Kobe‘s mamba mentality and laser focus made him capable of succeeding straight out of high school. It’s a path that has not worked out for most, but Bryant’s obsession with being the greatest pushed him to become a Los Angeles Lakers legend and bring home five NBA titles.

3. Kevin Garnett

Garnett‘s leap may have been the most difficult among the top three, given that he was going up against grown men in the paint the minute he reached the NBA. Despite this, he adapted quickly at a young age and became one of the best power forwards the sport has ever seen.

4. Moses Malone

The pioneer of entering the professional ranks fresh out of high school, Malone made his pro debut with the Utah Stars of the ABA at just 19 years old. The two seasons he spent in the ABA gave him ample time to beef up and prepare for the paint battles of the NBA, where he’d go on to have an 18-year Hall of Fame career.

5. Tracy McGrady

T-Mac took some time to get used to the next level after being drafted ninth overall straight out of high school. The Florida native wouldn’t average double-digits until his third season in the NBA, where it all began to click. By his seventh season, the Hall of Famer had notched back-to-back scoring titles and is known as one of the best pure scorers in the league’s history.

6. Dwight Howard

Few dominated the paint like Dwight Howard did with the Orlando Magic. There have been few primes from big men in the 21st century that rival what he did throughout the 2000s, including leading the Magic to an NBA Finals appearance in 2009. He’s a hot topic these days as a potential Hall of Famer, but we’ve got the 37-year-old making it to Springfield by a fair margin.

7. Amar’e Stoudemire

Stoudemire struggled to stay on the court once he got to 30 years old, but his prime was something else. He helped anchor the paint for the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks throughout the 2000s, proving to be one of the best-scoring big men in the league at the time.

8. Jermaine O’Neal

After a slow start to his career with four underwhelming seasons, O’Neal‘s decision to go pro after high school felt like a flop. But after a move to the Indiana Pacers, he saw the best stretch of his career. He was regularly pouring in 20 points a night and was able to string together an 18-year NBA career.

9. Tyson Chandler

The list drops off significantly here, but Chandler did well to make a lengthy career as a consistent starter in the NBA. He was an integral part of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks team that shocked the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and followed it up with winning Defensive Player of the Year in the 2011-12 season.

10. Josh Smith

Josh Smith is one of the NBA’s best players never to make an All-Star appearance. He was a total bucket during his time with the Hawks and was the leading scorer for some successful teams in Atlanta. His lack of accolades will likely undermine what was a solid NBA career for the Georgia native.

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Thumbnail photo via Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

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