In an era where franchises parade their ‘social responsibility’, the prospect of players being allowed to skip college let alone dropping out of high school is close to zero. But some of the best players in NBA took the unconventional route to the top.
From Kendrick Perkins though Kobe Bryant to LeBron James and Monta Ellis, the NBA Hall of Fame will soon have illustrious alumni who bucked the norm, eschewing the classroom for the education of the court. Not All-stars in every case but anyone who forges a 10+ year career as a pro must have been doing something right.
They are the success stories but what of the ones who excelled at school but weren’t as good as we all thought. You know the ones, the players in the schoolyard who when they had the ball, you just went, “WOW!”. The players who you knew were going to make it and who knew they were going to make it. The ones who skipped college only to find their dreams on the big-time cruelly crushed.
We look at 15 who, when the bar of expectations fell from a great height, still managed to somehow limbo dance under it.
15. FELIPE LOPEZ
From high school hero to zero is four seasons is Felipe Lopez’s sorry tale. On the front cover of Sports Illustrated as a teenager, a glittering NBA career was predicted for Mr. Basketball 1994.
Instead, we got an average of 5.8 points per game which undermined his nickname “Spanish Michael Jordan” unless the Michael Jordan referred to was a dentist in Little Rock, Arkansas.
Dominican-born out of Manhattan, his collegiate career hinted at a waning career despite making the All-Big East Rookie team. Sixth in the all-time points scoring list, seventh in the all-time steals list and 26th draft for the Spurs.
Those were highs; a prodigal son, he peaked long before becoming a man.
14. GREG ODEN
Another media anointed prodigy, USA Today hailed him as top high school player; twice. Only LeBron James matched that record and none surpassed it. Add in Mr Basketball 2006, the signs of a long and glittering career were all there.
Ohio State saw the best years of career where he continued to fulfil his youthful potential, with Ohio reaching the National Championship game in 2006-07. That year, Oden and Kevin Durant were the first freshman since 1990 to be included in the Associated Press All-American Team.
Portland Blazers took him up as #1 pick in the 2007 draft. but injuries which dogged his college years began to rear their ugly head. Right knee, left knee, wrist; there wasn’t a part of his body which escaped pain during his time in Portland.
Problems with the law followed a Hail Mary career reboot in China and he is now Student Team manager with Ohio State.
13. O.J. MAYO
Sportsmen known as “OJ” are asking for trouble; Mayo is another who proves that flimsy axiom. A glittering career never got going but the pro career which followed was stopped in its tracks in 2016 with a two-year ban from the NBA for failing a drugs test.
From the leader of the Class of 2007and even though he was only in 7th grade, the star of his varsity team, to becoming the first player in a decade to be banned by the NBA. He claims it was pot and abuse of prescription drugs; others believe something more sinister was at play.
That’s on top of the alleged violations of NCAA rules in 2008 for receiving improper benefits and gifts.
Mayo’s career at the Grizzlies, Mavericks and Bucks is fading and the controversy taking the headlines. It’s not how he made the 2009 NBA All-Rookie First Team but the mistakes he made for which Mayo will be remembered.
12. KORLEONE YOUNG
From high school to NBA; 1998 was a golden year with Al Harrington and Rashard Lewis leading the way. The racked up more than 2,000 NBA games between them. Ranked third, Young managed just three.
Even his high school coach was taken aback when the Pistons picked him in the second round of the 1998 draft. The warning signs were there when he played 15 minutes during the entire 1999 season when injury began to impinge on his career.
A minor league career in north America and around the globe, culminating in the final two years of his playing days being in China and Russia. The final ignominy came when he was waived by Italian club, Rosetta Sharks.
All went quiet until he wound up in court in 2009 after failing to appear at a previous hearing over child support.
11. DAJUAN WAGNER
Don’t believe the hype is the salutary warning of Wagner’s career.
His father Milt was a member of the 1988 Lakers team which were NBA champions. He is also a member of an elite group of players who were national champions in high school, college, and NBA.
Dajuan had a lot to live up to. The 2001 Naismith Prep Player of the Year followed that award with 2002 All-Conference USA first team honors. Daddy’s footsteps weren’t proving too big to fill. The NBA proved a different matter.
A career with the Cavs began brightly with 13.4 points per game but ulcerative colitis wrecked his dreams.
Two years after his star shone brightly, it was dimmed by illness. In 2006, he attempted an ill-fated comeback with the Golden State Warriors. One game and four points later, the Warriors bought out his contract and it was over.
To rub salt into the wound, he signed with AmeriLeague but that came to nought after the league folded with founder Cerruti Brown exposed a con-artist.
10. SEBASTIAN TELFAIR
The star of this show after his career was immortalised in Spike Lee’s film, He Got Game. Telfair was another who starred on the front of Sports Illustrated before reaching college and another whose curve trajectory for failure was far sharper than his rise.
The Trail Blazers picked him in 2004’s draft and he went on to make 564 NBA appearances for ten franchises before heading to China to play for Xinjiang Flying Tigers.
More attention is focused on his problems with law. Robbed in 2006 at gunpoint, he was arrested six months later for possession of a handgun which led to a three-game NBA suspension as well as three years of probation. A decade later, he was again arrested for possession of a handgun and two bags of marijuana.
At least this time he can’t be banned by the NBA…
9. LENNY COOKE
Does the name LeBron James mean anything to you? Like many, he destroyed Cooke’s career in 2001 when James, a then unknown, replaced Atlantic City-born Cooke as this nation’s saving grace.
Promised that he would be their choice, Cooke was overlooked in both rounds of the 2002 draft by the 29 NBA teams. An attempt to prove his value for the Boston Celtics in the summer leagues fell apart when LeBron James pitched up with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The minor leagues beckoned before injury ended his career.
Cooke has an NBA legacy though. No player can now skip college thanks to Cooke’s failure to complete his studies.
8 JEROD WARD
The 1994 Naismith Prep Player of the Year didn’t so much fall from grace as stumble to mediocrity.
Michigan’s Fab Five was set to launch again with Ward at the helm but only Maceo Baston and Maurice Taylor of the Fab Five II made the grade. An injury-plagued college career didn’t stop him ranking fifth in their all-time career three-point field goals.
Ward knocked on the door of the NBA, going to the Raptors 2002 training camp but never got any further; Jerod never got the chance to become J-Rod.
Although not from Harlem, he was a globetrotter during his minor league career playing in all points of the globe between Japan, the Philippines and Western Europe.
7. ROBERT SWIFT
From Bakersfield, Ca., to the pro-game, Swift blazed a trail. Garces Catholic High was an unlikely entry into the USA Today top-25 high school rankings where the warning signs of a problematic career were flagged. A transfer to Bakersfield High saw Swift banned for a year before that ruling was over-turned.
A twelfth-round pick in the 2004 Draft but by his third season, Seattle SuperSonics were transforming into Oklahoma City Thunder and Swift injury-prone. Kevin Durant was the rising star of the team and trawling the minor leagues marked his as a journeyman career.
With a list of raps more impressive than Eminem produced, Swift has (so far) been found guilty of reckless driving, unlawful possession of a shotgun and arrested for his part in an armed home invasion.
Drugs as ever, were at the centre of this sorry tale which has cost him just about everything bar his liberty.
6. LEON SMITH
A precocious talent from Chicago, Smith was the next big thing. After suffering neglect and being raised by a foster family, his was to be a story of inspiration, of what can be achieved through dedication and a God-given talent.
Instead, it turned out to be one of great sadness.
The Spurs picked him in first-round of the 1999 draft, where he ranked 29th overall. Smith was immediately traded to the Mavericks but never threw a ball in anger for Dallas as psychological issues surfaced.
It culminated in Smith being committed to a psychiatric ward for several weeks, after throwing a rock through a car window, swallowing 250 aspirins and telling police officers that he was an “Indian fighting Columbus”.
Dallas cut him loose and he trawled the minor leagues searching for a basketball career. The Atlanta Hawks picked him up in 2002 but he managed just 14 NBA games. His final 15th appearance came for the Seattle SuperSonics in 2004.
5. JOSH SELBY
Fresh out of Baltimore, Selby was ranked McDonald’s All-American in 2010, which took him to Kansas. Trouble reared its’ ugly head at the outset of his Jayhawks career when he was banned for nine games after receiving improper benefits worth over $4.5k.
The Grizzlies were unperturbed by his unimpressive showing in collegiate basketball, picking him the second round of the 2011 draft. Assigned to Reno Chargers in the February, he was voted MVP in the 2012 NBA Summer League, before returning to Reno and eventually being traded to the Cavaliers.
The good times lasted a season when Cleveland passed on him and since then it’s been the minor leagues before flitting to China, Croatia and ping-ponging between Turkey and Israel, where he currently plays for Maccabi Kiryat Gat.
4. JEREMY TYLER
The decision to go straight from high school to pro isn’t unusual but Jeremy Tyler took it to a new level when he dropped out of San Diego High School after his junior prom. In a twist, he joined Maccabi Haifa in 2009 but personal problems curtailed his spell in Israel and in March 2010, he returned to California.
He’d been rated as 7th best in the junior rankings and had some of the country’s brightest basketball programs chasing him. UCLA, Louisville and UNC all missed out – or dodged a bullet – with Tyler, depending on your viewpoint.
With no domestic offers forthcoming, Tyler went overseas once again, this time to Tokyo before the NVA beckoned with Golden State Warriors, Atlanta, and the Knicks all offering him opportunities, which he ultimately spurned.
In 2014, he returned overseas having failed to establish himself in the elite, and has spent the past three seasons in China, most recently with Tianjin Ronggang.
3. CHRIS WALKER
Walker stands out for all the wrong reasons. He’s the only one of the ten players that started the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic who hasn’t made the grade in the NBA. It’s impressive to reach that level and to then be the only one to completely fail.
His time at high school is mired in controversy since he was offered a place at University of Florida without achieving the grades required. His place was held open and he arrived at the Gators in December 2013.
Not that it did him any good. Another to fall foul of the rules surrounding improper benefits, he was banned for twelve games. It hurt the McDonald’s All-American.
The 2015 draft beckoned and turn into a nightmare. After declaring, he was overlooked by all 29 teams until Houston Rockets picked him up as a free agent. Three months later, he moved to Rio Grande Valley Vipers and there he remains to this day.
2. DAMON BAILEY
40,000 people can’t be wrong, can they? That’s the number of people who watched Damon Bailey’s high school games at Bedford North Lawrence in Indiana. Labelled as the best of the best by Bob Knight, the legendary Hoosiers coach, Bailey proved flattery does get you everywhere by linking up with Indiana after graduating.
Another Mr Basketball, this time in 1990, he ranked sixth in the all-time scoring list for the Hoosiers, as well as a first-team All-Big Ten award.
In 1994, he was a second-round draft pick by the Indiana Pacers but spent a year on the team’s injured list and was cut. The Cav’s briefly picked him up in 1999 but the CBA proved a more fruitful destination where played out his career before retiring in 2003.
Since then he was returned to his native Indiana and is coaching the BNL Lady Stars with some success, leading them to two consecutive state titles before joining his mentor Kurt Godlevske at Butler’s women’s team.
1. ANTHONY BENNETT
When you’re in the playground, the overweight kid is rarely the first pick when teams are chosen for the lunchtime ball game. Anthony Bennett bucked that trend. Born in Tornto, he studied locally until his academy closed and he relocated to Findlay Prep in Nevada. Ranked the #1 forward in 2012, he continued to shine for his college side and progressed to UNLV.
For a ball player, a shoulder injury is never a good sign and UNLV saw his time on court curtailed as he struggled with his fitness. In 2013, he was drafted by the Cavs as a first-choice pick, the first Canadian player to do so.
His rookie season was a disaster with some ranking him the worst number 1 pick ever. That theory was given credence by subsequent events.
2014 saw him move to the Timberwolves, who twelve months later bought out his contract. Spells at the Raptors and Nets followed by time in Turkey after he made history by becoming the first number 1 pick to be sent to the D-League.
As falls from grace go, it was a hard landing. Fortunately, there was plenty of padding around his body to break the fall.