November 10, 2003

Straight into the pros (Part Two)

I'm draftin 'em outta high school straight into the pros


--- Nelly, E.I.

While this is and will remain almost solely a baseball website, there are occasionally other topics in the world of sports that interest me. So today, with all apologies to those of you only interested in baseball, I would like to discuss one of those topics...

In yesterday's entry, I discussed Kevin Garnett and his role as the guinea pig for an entire generation of basketball players. I also looked at the early development of the three players (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal) who followed Garnett by going from high school straight to the NBA in the two years after Garnett was the first player to do so in two decades.

Here's a little bit from yesterday:

"Of the first four high school draft picks of this era, all four of them were All-Stars by 23 years old and, although the oldest of the four is just 27 right now, three of them are among the elite handful of players in the NBA and all four of them are among the top two-dozen players in basketball.

That is an absolutely amazing "success-rate" and I suspect it is a very large reason for why, in the years after these four were drafted, more and more high school players have made the jump to the NBA."

Today I would like to take up right where I left off yesterday and look at the more recent high school draftees to see how their development is going...

The 1998 draft featured something "different" in regard to high school players. Garnett started the trend by being the #5 pick in the 1995 draft and Bryant, McGrady and O'Neal followed by all being selected in the top 20 picks of their respective drafts. But in 1998, three high school players were drafted, one at the very end of the first round, one not until several picks into round two, and one with the 40th pick of the draft.

This new development showed, I think, two main things. First, the fact that three high school players were drafted in the same year showed that it had become more common, more acceptable to make the jump. Second, and perhaps related to the first point, the players making the jump were no longer the very elite, the cream of the high school crop. It took a special, once-in-a-lifetime player like Garnett to start the trend, but by 1998 simply being a great high school player was good enough. In that sense, I think the 1998 draft was an important development in the history of high school draft picks.

Al Harrington | #25 (1998)

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

 18     21      0      7.6      2.1      1.9      0.2      0.1      0.2

 19     50      0     17.1      6.6      3.1      0.8      0.2      0.5

 20     78     38     24.3      7.5      4.9      1.7      0.2      0.8

Al Harrington's development is a little bit slow when compared to Garnett, Bryant, McGrady and O'Neal (a group that will be referred to as "The Big Four" from here on out). Harrington's first season in the NBA was very much like O'Neal's, in that he barely played and was essentially a mop-up player. He saw his minutes per game more than double in his second season when played 17.1 per game, more than O'Neal played in his second year and slightly fewer than McGrady in his. Of course, by his second year, Garnett was an All-Star.

In his third year, Harrington appeared to have made the first jump, which is moving into a part-time starting role. He started 38 of the 78 games he played and averaged 24.3 minutes per game. This is a jump Garnett made midway through his rookie season and that McGrady experienced in his third season, just like Harrington.

But unlike The Big Four, Harrington has yet to make the second jump, which is moving into the role of a full-time starter. After starting those 38 games in 2000-2001, Harrington started just one of the 44 games he played the next season. Last year he was again in the role of part-time starter, getting a start in 37 games. But now this season, Harrington has come off the bench for all seven games he has played.

Harrington is in a similar situation to the one Jermaine O'Neal found himself in while with Portland (which I discussed yesterday). The Pacers are a very good and very deep team and it is simply hard for Harrington to move ahead of guys like Ron Artest and Reggie Miller on the depth-chart. I suspect at some point very soon Miller, who is 38 years old and averaging just 8.8 points per game, will step aside and Harrington will get his spot in the starting lineup.

Despite not getting tabbed as a starter yet, Harrington has been a solid contributor to the Pacers during the past few years. Counting this season, he has averaged 29.8, 30.1 and 29.7 minutes per game, while scoring 13.1, 12.2 and 12.7 points per contest. He struggles at times with his outside shooting, but he's extremely athletic, he is a good scorer and his rebounding and defense are vastly improved from his early days. Oh, and he's still just 23 years old.

While it doesn't look like he is going to follow in the footsteps of The Big Four and become an All-Star by 23, I do think Harrington has a good chance of being an All-Star player soon after he is given a starting job. In the 37 games he started last year he averaged 14 points and 7 rebounds in 33.4 minutes.

Rashard Lewis | #32 (1998)

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

 19     20      7      7.3      2.4      1.3      0.2      0.1      0.4

 20     82      8     19.2      8.2      4.0      0.9      0.4      0.8

 21     78     78     34.9     14.8      6.9      1.6      0.6      1.2

Rashard Lewis' draft-day experience was not a good one. He was invited to attend the draft in person, an honor usually reserved only for those players guaranteed of being selected within the first half or so of the first round. Lewis sat in the "green room" as pick after pick after pick was announced, all dressed up in a brand new suit, with his family by his side.

The top 10. The top 15. The top 20. The top 25. They all came and went. As the first round came to a close and most of the night's storylines were already played out, TNT's cameras seemed to all focus on a distraught Lewis waiting - praying - for his name to be called. It finally was, although not until several picks into the second round.

As was the case with Jermaine O'Neal's lack of playing time in Portland, many critics of high school draftees jumped all over Lewis' late selection, using it as "evidence" against high school players going to the NBA. At the time, that seemed logical because, after all, Lewis had come into the draft expecting guaranteed millions and was leaving with a lot of embarrassment and a non-guaranteed contract that is standard operating procedure in round two.

Whatever sense that criticism made then is completely gone, however. Lewis joined the Seattle Supersonics and his development has been what I think many basketball experts would call a perfect one. He played sparingly in his first season, averaging just 7.3 minutes per game. After learning the ropes a little, he became a key bench player for Seattle in his second year, averaging 19.2 minutes and 8.2 points per game, while getting eight starts along the way. Then, in his third season, he made the leap into the starting lineup and responded by scoring 14.8 points per game in 34.9 minutes.

Lewis went from disappointed second round pick to mop-up man to bench contributor to starter, all within three years. And he was a legit NBA starter at 21 years old. Lewis has been one of Seattle's best players over the past three seasons and he dropped 50 points on the Clippers in his second game this season. After making the first jump, the one into the starting lineup, several years ago, Lewis appears ready to make the second jump, the one The Big Four have all made. I wouldn't be surprised if he was an All-Star this season, at the age of 24. And I also wouldn't be surprised if he went down as one of the best second round picks in NBA history.

Korleone Young | #40 (1998)

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

 20      3      0      5.0      4.3      1.3      0.3      0.0      0.0

Korleone Young is the first true "bust" among this generation of high school draftees. After a standout career at Hargrave Military Academy, Young bypassed college and declared for the NBA draft, to the surprise of most. He was a great high school player (USA Today and McDonald's First-Team All-American), but the general feeling was that he was not up to the standards of Harrington and Lewis, let alone The Big Four.

I did a little digging around the internet researching this subject and found a couple of "mock drafts" written prior to the 1998 draft.

In Jackie MacMullan's (of CNN-Sports Illustrated), she projects the entire first round of the draft, assigning players for all 29 picks. Korleone Young's name is nowhere to be found.

Bob Hill (also of CNN-Sports Illustrated) similarly projects the entire first round without once mentioning Young's name.

I also found a scouting-report on Korleone Young, which was published in USA Today, prior to the draft:

"Early entry candidate for draft from high school. USA TODAY first-team All-American after averaging 30.3 points and 11.4 rebounds per game for Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. Spent first three seasons at Wichita East HS. Totaled 2,092 points and 1,177 rebounds in high school career. Probably not ready for the NBA and is not expected to be taken in the first round. Questions about offensive ability were only enhanced after a mediocre effort in the NBA Pre-Draft Camp in Chicago. Would be better served by going to college and may be out of the league shortly."

The key sentences there obviously being, "Probably not ready for the NBA and is not expected to be taken in the first round" and "Would be better served by going to college and may be out of the league shortly."

I would say the writing was on the wall for Young and that scouting-report was right on the money. And, of course, failure by a #40 pick is certainly nothing out of the ordinary.

The players drafted in the years following Harrington, Lewis and Young in 1998 are, at most, 22 years old, and many of them are younger than that. As you can see by looking at the early stages of the careers of the high school draftees from 1995-1998, it is often pointless to try to make judgments on a high school player that early in his career.

Keeping that in mind, let's take a look anyway, and maybe try to find some similarities between the more recent high school draftees and some of the guys from the first wave.

Jonathan Bender | #5 (1999)

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

 19     24      1      5.4      2.7      0.9      0.1      0.2      0.0

 20     59      7      9.7      3.3      1.2      0.5      0.5      0.1

 21     78     17     21.1      7.4      3.1      0.8      0.6      0.2

The Pacers liked drafting a high school player in 1998 so much that they went and got themselves another one the next year. At the time, I remember Jonathan Bender being called "The Next Kevin Garnett" over and over again. And certainly the physical similarities are there. Like Garnett, Bender is a lanky seven-footer who can handle the basketball, he has good range on his jump-shot and he can play just about any position on the court.

Unlike Garnett, Bender was not given significant playing-time in his first few seasons. He spent the first two years at the end of the bench and has been a solid contributor while still coming off the bench during the last two years. Last year he averaged 17.8 minutes and 6.6 points per game.

Bender has yet to play this season because of a knee injury, although he is supposed to be due back very soon. When he does return, he faces the same problem Harrington has, which is moving ahead of the veterans on Indiana's depth-chart. Bender's best two positions are almost certainly small forward and power forward, but those two starting spots are currently held down by Ron Artest and Jermaine O'Neal. Incidentally, the Pacers lead the NBA in high school draftees with three, and I would love to get a chance to talk to Donnie Walsh, the man responsible for acquiring all three of them, about his thoughts on high school players going to the NBA.

Leon Smith | #29 (1999)

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

 21      14     0      7.1      2.2      2.2      0.2      0.1      0.4

Leon Smith joins Korleone Young as one of the few official busts among high school draftees. Like Young, Smith was not projected by many to be chosen in the first round, but the Dallas Mavericks traded up to grab him with the last pick in first round, #29 overall.

From there, Smith's story gets a little strange. From what I remember, Smith showed up at a Mavs training facility wearing army fatigues and camouflage paint on his face. I believe there were some other incidents, including a screaming match with Mavs coach Don Nelson, and Smith was later diagnosed as having some mental problems.

He was let go by the Mavericks before he ever played a single minute for them and later ended up playing in the CBA. He did very well there, averaging 18 points and 15 rebounds in 19 games, and then signed with the Atlanta Hawks. He played 14 games with Atlanta in 2001-02, averaging 7.1 minutes per game. Then he was involved in the trade that sent Toni Kukoc from Atlanta to Milwaukee for Glenn Robinson. I am not quite sure where Smith is now, but I do know he isn't a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.

The Leon Smith saga is a very sad one and I suspect he was just about the worst person in the world to attempt to go to the NBA straight out of high school.

Darius Miles | #3 (2000)

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

 19     81     21     26.3      9.4      5.9      1.2      1.5      0.6

 20     82      6     27.2      9.5      5.5      2.2      1.3      0.9

 21     67     62     30.0      9.2      5.4      2.6      1.0      1.0

Darius Miles is similar to Tracy McGrady (and somewhat similar to Jermaine O'Neal), in that he had to find a second NBA team before he was given a chance to be a full-time starter. After two years with the Clippers in which he played 26.3 and 27.2 minutes per game but started a total of only 27 games, Miles was dealt to Cleveland. He started 62 games for the Cavs last year, although his minutes per game and overall production were basically the same as they had been in Los Angeles.

I am a big fan of Darius Miles and I have defended him various places when people talk about him as a disappointment. To me, he is one of the most intriguing players in basketball, because he can truly play any position on the floor and his athleticism in unmatched. The big problem with Miles and the thing that is keeping him from taking the next step as a player, is that he has absolutely zero outside jumper. The man can't shoot to save his life at this point. Despite playing quite a bit of shooting guard and small forward (and even some point guard this year with the Cavs), Miles is 5-60 (12.5%) on three-pointers during his career.

If he can ever learn to shoot - and at this point that's a pretty big if - I truly believe he can become an elite NBA player. The main point I try to make to those who are ready to give up on Miles is that he turned 22 years old last month. Sure, he may been rough around the edges, but can you imagine if he was this good and he had just come out of college? And really, the same point can be made for any high school draftee who struggles. Even if a guy is a mediocre player with tons of weaknesses for his first four or five years in the league, he is still just 22 or 23 years old at that point, an age at which they'd be in the first or second NBA season if they had gone to college.

DeShawn Stevenson | #23 (2000)

AGE      G     GS      MPG      PPG      RPG      APG      BPG      SPG

 19     40      2      7.3      2.2      0.7      0.5      0.1      0.7

 20     67     23     16.9      4.9      2.0      1.7      0.4      0.4

 21     61      8     12.5      4.6      1.4      0.7      0.1      0.4

After Miles went #3 in the 2000 draft, DeShawn Stevenson went #23 to the last team I ever would have thought interested in taking a high school player, the Utah Jazz. I would have thought Utah would have been the last team in the league to draft a high school player, not only because they were a veteran team at the time, but also because their coach, Jerry Sloan, didn't seem like he'd be all that interested in having a 19-year old on the squad.

And actually, for the first few years, he wasn't all that interested. Stevenson played 7.3 minutes per game as a rookie and then 16.9 and 12.5 minutes per game in his second and third years. With Karl Malone and John Stockton gone and the franchise is a serious youth-movement, Jerry Sloan has given Stevenson a spot in the starting rotation and quite a bit of playing time in the early going this year.

Through six games (all starts), Stevenson is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 29.7 minutes. Like many of his fellow high school draftees, Stevenson is extremely athletic but he lacks shooting range. This is even more of an issue with him because, unlike Miles, he doesn't have the ability to play an inside position. For his career he is 8-54 (14.8%) on three-pointers, which works out to one made three for every 295.6 minutes he has been on the court.

There is no doubt that he is on his way to becoming a good player however, and he'll be a big part of Utah's next good team.


Kwame Brown, #1 in 2001

Tyson Chandler, #2 in 2001

Eddy Curry, #4 in 2001

DeSagana Diop, #8 in 2001

Amare Stoudemire, #9 in 2002

LeBron James, #1 in 2003

Travis Outlaw, #23 in 2003

Nbudi Ebi, #26 in 2003

Kendrick Perkins, #27 in 2003

James Lang, #48 in 2003

That's the group of high schoolers who have been picked during the last three drafts. 2001 was an important development in this area, because high school players made up three of the first four picks in the entire draft, and four of the first eight.

Kwame Brown, the #1 pick that year, has taken a ton of heat about his lack of development, but I think anyone who has any sort of knowledge about the career-paths of the high school draftees that have come before him knows it is far too early to pass judgment on him. Brown played very sparingly in his first two years in the league and is only now getting a chance to start, in his third season. I still think he has a very good chance of becoming a star.

After Brown, the Bulls got a hold of two high schoolers, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. Those two big men are the frontline of the present and of the future for Chicago, and both of them are playing a lot this season.

Chandler has missed some time with a back injury, but he is averaging 31.8 minutes per game and has given the Bulls 12.8 points, 13.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per. Curry is averaging 29.0 minutes per game and has scored 12.0 points per contest, while blocking 1.9 shots.

Chandler is a much more polished player than Curry, and while I think they are both going to become stars, I really like Chandler's future. I think he could be the next high school draftee to make "The Jump."

DeSagana Diop is a guy I saw play live in high school and I wasn't even really impressed with him then. He's a huge guy (7'0" and over 300 lbs.) but he didn't really have any discernible skills back then, other than his height and strength. He really still doesn't, but he's turned himself into a quality backup big man and has impressed the Cavs with his shot-blocking this season.

Amare Stoudemire's debut last season is currently the best rookie year ever by a high school draftee, although LeBron James is going to put an end to that this year. He is the first guy to have been a starter from essentially the very beginning of his career. He played "starter's minutes," he scored 13.5 points per game, he grabbed 8.7 rebounds per game, and he was named the NBA Rookie of the Year.

Among this year's high school draftees, only LeBron James is playing any sort of significant minutes, and he is playing extremely well. I don't think there is much doubt at all that he will be a great player very soon.

In examining these players, it strikes me as extremely impressive the amount of stars that have been drafted straight out of high school. Of the seven who have had what I would consider long enough time to develop as players, three of them are elite superstars (Garnett, Bryant, McGrady), another one is right on the cusp of that (O'Neal), and yet another is a borderline All-Star (Lewis). Also in that group is one flat-out bust (Young) and one player (Harrington) for whom the jury is definitely still out.

I think five great players, one "jury is still out" and one bust is one hell of a success-rate, considering just two of the seven were chosen in the top-10 and two others weren't even picked in the first round.

As for the more recent high school draftees, it's way too early to tell. I think LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire are just moments away from becoming full-fledged stars and I also think Chandler is getting close too. Curry and Miles also look very promising to me, and I'd say the jury is still out on the rest of them (aside from Smith, whom I think we can safely call another bust).

The next time you hear someone complain about a high school player, whether it is Kwame Brown or DeSagana Diop or someone else, just remind them that even guys like Tracy McGrady, Rashard Lewis and Jermaine O'Neal weren't looking all that great after just a few years in the NBA. It takes time, time to mature, time to develop NBA-skills and an NBA-body. Lucky, time is what most of these guys have plenty of. Kevin Garnett, the elder statesman of this fraternity, turned 27 years old this year.

I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a more successful "group" of players than the high school draftees. There is probably a good study to made out of this, comparing them to college seniors and juniors, etc., although they all need a few more years (or maybe a decade) before they can really be judged. Still, I don't think it is a stretch to say that within 3-4 years, the top 10-20 players in the NBA could include as many as 10 high school draftees and that's impressive, no matter what you think about 18 year olds playing professional basketball.
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