When Amir Johnson’s name became part of the 2005 NBA group of draftees after Detroit selected the Westchester High School (Los Angeles) product with the 56th pick, no other true high schooler would hear his name called in such type of event up to these days. Truth be told, all of Satnam Singh (2015), Thon Maker (2016), and Anfernee Simons (2018) made it to the NBA straight out of high school, but their cases are the exception to the rule and all come with an asterisk attached to them.
The reality, though, is that NBA put a ban of the prep-to-pros pipeline leading up to the 2006 draft, making the members of the 2005 HS class the last ones able to jump-start their pro careers making a straight leap from high school to the Association. That, if you ask me, was a bummer. With that route cut out, prospects were mostly forced to make it to the NCAA ranks for a year before declaring for the draft. The latest developments regarding elite prospects getting ready for the pros, though, are watching them ditch college in favor of other options such as playing overseas (LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton did it) or entering the G League as part of its Select Team (Jonathan Kuminga, Isaiah Todd, Jalen Green, Daishen Nix, and Kai Sotto will be there next season).
But what if the NBA had not banned the prep-to-pro route back in 2006? With the benefit of hindsight, I’ll go class by class (rankings by 247Sports Composite board) reviewing who could have made the jump straight to the NBA, who was ranked too high and could have flopped after such an eventual jump, who needed the most reps to hone their game, etc. Let’s get to it!
2018 HS Class: Top-10 Prospects
2018 Top-10 HS Prospects
|2018||1||RJ Barrett||Montverde Academy (Montverde, FL)||SG||6'7||200||5||1.2000||1||1||1||Duke|
|2018||2||Cam Reddish||Westtown School (Norristown, PA)||SF||6'7||211||5||9.993||2||1||1||Duke|
|2018||3||Nassir Little||Orlando Christian Prep (Orlando, FL)||SF||6'7||205||5||9.992||3||2||2||North Carolina|
|2018||4||Bol Bol||Findlay Prep (Henderson, NV)||C||7'2||230||5||9.989||4||1||1||Oregon|
|2018||5||Zion Williamson||Spartanburg Day School (Spartanburg, SC)||PF||6'6||275||5||9.986||5||1||1||Duke|
|2018||6||Charles Bassey||Aspire Basketball Academy (Louisville, KY)||C||6'10||220||5||9.985||6||2||1||Western Kentucky|
|2018||7||Romeo Langford||New Albany Senior (New Albany, IN)||SG||6'6||215||5||9.984||7||2||1||Indiana|
|2018||8||Anfernee Simons||IMG Academy (Bradenton, FL)||CG||6'4||170||5||9.969||8||1||3||N/A|
|2018||9||EJ Montgomery||Wheeler (Marietta, GA)||PF||6'10||200||5||9.967||9||2||1||Kentucky|
|2018||10||Quentin Grimes||College Park (The Woodlands, TX)||CG||6'5||200||5||9.967||10||2||1||Kansas|
When the recruiting process involving the 2018 HS class was over, the biggest story coming out of it was more about an individual college rather than an individual player. It made sense. Duke had accomplished something really incredible by getting three of the top-5 prospects of the year, and to some, three of the top-4 or even top-3 players in the nation. That’s right. The Blue Devils landed consensus no. 1 RJ Barrett, no. 2 Cam Reddish, and no. 3 Zion Williams to build the strongest core of one-and-dones of the past few years.
Oh, and in case you are surprised by what you just read (“consensus no. 1 RJ Barrett”) let me tell you that in the summer of 2018 that was entirely true. Barrett was about to join Duke after winning a U19 gold medal with Canada’s national team. Leading the leaf at age-17. Bonkers. A few months later, when Duke played their first pre-season games—touring Canada, of course—the perception of Barrett and Zion started to flip in favor of the latter, and it wasn’t until the season got rolling that Williams clearly started to be seen and labeled as the true no. 1 player from the 2018 crop.
But there is much more to unpack from this class. Kentucky gets lost in the Duke Recruiting Hurricane, but the Wildcats secured themselves three of the top-13 players of the class.
Obviously, the 2018 class is the freshest off college (and only for those who left after one season), so it is not that we can go ahead and name steals and duds so confidently yet. No players from the top-10 did declare for the 2019 draft and went undrafted, and only no. 11 Simisola Shittu faced that fate last summer. Even with that, Shittu was signed by Chicago and sent to the G League Windy City Bulls, which doesn’t look that bad for him going forward in terms of eventually reaching the NBA.
Which players WOULD have gone prep-to-pros?
It is easy to see RJ Barrett making the early jump. We’re talking about the consensus no. 1 prospect of his class, a multi-award winner in his HS days, the MVP of the U19 World Cap and gold medalist with Canada, and a Montverde Academy product. Doesn’t get much better than that. Barrett would have put his name in the 2018 draft and probably gotten drafted as the first or second guard/wing off the board up there with Trae Young and Luka Doncic.
I would pass on Reddish going pro. Yes, he was the no. 2 kid in the nation but he never felt super developed and I don’t know if he would have been selected inside the first round of 2018. Perhaps a second-rounder, but he would have had it much tougher once entering the NBA circuit, I have to think.
Bol Bol is so weird in his build and game that I guess he would have tried his luck and if only because of the huge questions surrounding what he could turn into he would have been drafted somewhere in the second round at least. The upside is definitely there, and it was always going to be a long road to walk in terms of development, but you don’t see this type of unique player popping up draft boards every year. On the bad side: the concerns about his true commitment to the game and his passive attitude. On the bright one: he would have entered the L without the injury he suffered in December 2018, potentially having played two pro-seasons by now.
I don’t think I need to say anything about Zion. He wouldn’t have been the clear-cut no. 1 pick one year earlier than he did, because he wasn’t as hyped as he was in 2019 after his lone year at Duke, but you bet he would have been a top-5 pick without a doubt. Zion became the prodigal son of social media, dunk-clips, and booming mixtapes. There were others before him, but he just destroyed all records in those terms.
Finally, I have to mention Anfernee Simons. Why? Well, because this is not a what-if, but rather a very real thing: Simons became the first American to go prep-to-pro since the 2005 ban. He attended IMG Academy in 2018 while completing a postgraduate year, skipping college, and declaring for the 2018 draft where Portland picked him 24th-overall. Shout-out to Simons for re-opening the pipeline for American kids!
Which players COULD have gone prep-to-pros?
Zion’s collegiate exploits are still fresh in our minds, but just in case you are still skeptical about his potential early jump: Williamson finished the 2019 season as the third-best player in WS all-classes considered. He was the best freshman, obviously, and averaged and incredible 22.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg while posting a barely-believable 70.2 True Shooting percentage.
But Williamson is too easy a pick to include here. What about Tyler Herro? I’m convinced Miami’s development system has helped Herro turn into the rookie season he had this year, but he was already great playing in Kentucky and he hasn’t missed a beat among pros. He could have jumped as a teen and probably find a place in some team as a bench player with a defined three-point-shooter role when needed.
The only other player I think could have jumped one year before he declared for the draft is Jaxson Hayes. I might be alone on this island, though, and it could be reasonable. Hayes was only the no. 102 prospect from the 2018 class and that would have made it super difficult for him to appeal any team to draft him. He played in New Orleans this past season, and it is not that he had elite talent surrounding him, so maybe he could have still found a place in a roster one year ago. But again, odds would have been against him if only because he was going a little bit under the radar as a HS prospect.