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Rebuilding the Prep-To-Pro NBA History: Class of 2012

The NBA blocked the prep-to-pros route in advance of the 2006 draft. With the league taking the steps to lift the ban and more and more prospects taking alternative routes to the Association, we’re taking a retrospective look at what could have happened had the NBA not imposed the HS-to-NBA-pipeline ban, one class at a time.

Tilton Basketball Photo by Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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!

2012 HS Class: Top-10 Prospects

2012 Top-10 HS Prospects

Yr Rk. Name High School Pos Hgt Wgt Stars Avg Nat Pos St College
Yr Rk. Name High School Pos Hgt Wgt Stars Avg Nat Pos St College
2012 1 Nerlens Noel Tilton School (Tilton, NH) PF 6'11 215 5 9.999 1 1 1 Kentucky
2012 2 Shabazz Muhammad Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas, NV) SG 6'5 205 5 9.997 2 1 1 UCLA
2012 3 Kyle Anderson St Anthony (Jersey City, NJ) SF 6'9 215 5 9.990 3 1 1 UCLA
2012 4 Isaiah Austin Grace Preparatory Academy (Arlington, TX) PF 7'0 215 5 9.990 4 2 1 Baylor
2012 5 Steven Adams Notre Dame Preparatory School (Fitchburg, MA) C 6'11 235 5 9.985 5 1 1 Pittsburgh
2012 6 Anthony Bennett Findlay Prep (Henderson, NV) PF 6'7 242 5 9.974 6 3 2 UNLV
2012 7 Alex Poythress Northeast (Clarksville, TN) SF 6'7 215 5 9.971 7 2 1 Kentucky
2012 8 Kaleb Tarczewski St Mark's School (Southborough, MA) C 7'0 225 5 9.970 8 2 2 Arizona
2012 9 Grant Jerrett Lutheran (La Verne, CA) PF 6'10 230 5 9.960 9 4 1 Arizona
2012 10 Marcus Smart Marcus (Flower Mound, TX) PG 6'4 205 5 9.960 10 1 2 Oklahoma State
2012 Top-10 HS Prospects

I’m not gonna lie to you here: I don’t have a clear recollection or vivid memories from many of the top-10 players of the 2012 class of HS seniors. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention back then, but rather that there were two—three, if you push me—supernovas in the ranks that just got all of my brain power and focus: enter no. 1 and no. 2 ranked prospects Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad. And if you will, throw Anthony Bennett in there too.

It is clear to anyone that has kept following basketball from 2012 to this day that Bennett, even being almost a top-5 recruit was still far from becoming the uber-famous player that Cleveland would make him once the Cavs picked him with the no. 1 pick of the 2013 NBA draft. That, sadly, would be his peak, as he would ultimately become one of the biggest busts in draft history by amassing all of 0.5 Win Shares (WS) through his four-year pro career in the League while playing for those Cavs, Minny, Toronto, and finally Brooklyn and starting in 4 of his 151 total games.

Bennett aside, the pair of Noel and Muhammad was the one bringing actual intrigue and upside to this class of hoopers more than anyone else. Although 247Sports has Noel as the clear-cut no. 1 prospect in the nation, the truth is that the RSCI ranks had both tied at the top of the ranks with a three/three split in votes for the no. 1 and no. 2 spot in the class each. This should have not been the case, as Nerlens Noel was originally part of the 2013 class but reclassified to the 2012 crop in February of that year, becoming the no. 1 player in the nation to many scouts. That speaks volumes of Noel’s talent, as even jumping a year he was still able to snatch that no. 1 spot. Crazy. That jump of classes forbid him from participating in the MCDAAG but he was named to both the Nike Hoop Summit and the Jordan Brand Classic. Noel picked Kentucky two months after reclassifying and ultimately became a good-not-great NBA player with 21.6 WS at the end of the 2020 season.

Now, moving on to Shabazz Muhammad, this is the kid I remember the most from this whole class. Bazz’s highlight mixtapes were insane in the brain. He was absolutely hyped everywhere, and seen as the true next big-thing. There were multiple voices putting him next to LeBron in the conversation of how the NBA should bring back the prep-to-pros path to the Association. Yes, that’s right. Muhammad seemed such a surefire hit that there were no doubts in people’s minds that he would have become an NBA-teen had he been allowed to. Alas, we know how Muhammad’s career turned out: five seasons, two teams, and endless disappointment (8.5 WS).

The rest of the top-10 was a good mix of hits and misses, at the very least. We had from a future role player in Kyle Anderson (17.6 WS) to an absolute monster in the paint that keeps growing and developing but who wasn’t a big deal in 2012—the only top-10 player eligible for the MCDAAG that wasn’t selected—in Steven Adams (44.9), and a D-dog in Marcus Smart (20.3) that had an impossible burst up through the rankings in his senior year when he went from unnoticed to top-10 prospect in the whole country.

On the sad and stunted side of things, no. 4 Isaiah Austin saw his career derailed by the Marfan syndrome. He had to accept the fact that he wasn’t going to play competitive basketball but NBA commish Adam Silver made Austin a ceremonial pick in the 2014 draft. He would then went on to play basketball professionally around the world, which rules for someone who had it as tough as Austin did. Recruiting services missed big-time in every kid from no. 7 to no. 9, as none of them was ever drafted by an NBA franchise and only Grant Jerrett (in 2015) Alex Poythress were able to log a game played in the league, the latter in 2017!

If you want to save you some exploring time, don’t put any effort in looking for super-deep gems buried down the 2012 class ranks. There was only one such player, and he’s still pretty much a work in progress that has exploded no more than a year ago: that is current Brooklyn Net Caris LeVert, who was ranked no. 239 in 2012 by scouting “experts”. As I said, LeVert (6.9 WS) has only played 213 regular-season NBA games and didn’t debut until the 2017 season, posting more than 10 points per game for the first time in 2018. If you consider players below the no. 150 spot worth labeling “hidden gems”, then you have to know about a certain Buddy Hield (no. 156). Considering that he needed four years at Oklahoma to hone his game—read, shooting—it makes sense that he flew a bit under the radar first although he later became a 6thoverall pick in 2016 and is 11th in WS (13.1) )among his classmates.

Which players WOULD have gone prep-to-pros?

With the average of players jumping straight from HS to pros back when it was possible sitting at four/five per class, we would only be left with half of those slots available in 2012. See, there is no point in hiding it: even reclassifying and being super young, Nerlens Noel would have jumped the hell from prep to the L. He only spent a year in Kentucky, became a prominent one-and-done with an average 10-10 season including 4.4 blocks per game, and he would have carried all of the hype as a teenager to the Association with him and thus gotten drafted as early as he had chosen to become a pro.

In fact, what would have happened if Noel had turned pro and skipped the lone college season in which he tore his left knee ACL? Would his career had gone on differently? He was projected to become the clear-cut no. 1 pick in 2013, but ultimately had to settle for the no. 6 selection. He wouldn’t debut with Philly until the 2014-15 season, and he has missed 131 in his career so far. That pesky ACL and the blocked prep-to-pros road, man.

I already told you about how highly perceived Shabazz Muhammad was as a HS senior. He would have been a lock to jump early, full stop. In fact, after being “forced” to endure the collegiate route and spending one year at UCLA dropping a monster 17.9 points per game, he declared for the draft after snatching the PAC 12 freshman of the year award. Criticize his game all you want, but this madman dropped double-digit scores in 31 of his 32 NCAA games.

Muhammad presents the typical high school-abuser profile of player: flashy dunker, never disliked a shot scorer, and not much more. It showed a bit in college (he only averaged 5.2 rebounds per game and 0.8 assists per game with disastrous defense) and ultimately among pros as he never found his place in the NBA where he wasn’t even that good at scoring. The year of skill-honing at UCLA never did a lot to improve his game, so he might have gone on to had the same career all things considered.

For the third kid to jump from HS early I would take Anthony Bennett. The Cavs drafting him no. 1 made no sense even after one year of college hoops at UNLV, and it is probable that he would have been a lottery pick one year earlier—in no away as high as a top-5 draftee though. Bennett’s short but yet productive career in Las Vegas boosted his value a ton to the eyes of Cleveland, and the numbers kinda backed it up. Bennett was the second-best freshman in the nation only behind redshirt freshman Ben McLemore posting 5.7 WS over 35 NCAA games while boasting the highest PER among freshmen with 725+ minutes that year. That’s cool, but he did it facing mostly Mountain West Conference teams, and with Vegas finishing third in the conference with a 10-6 record. No surprise he became a true bust once he reached the pros. He would have been even a bigger one had he jumped early, that is pretty clear these days.

And... that’s it! Would one or two more guys have tried their luck at the pro level of basketball early? Could be the case, but I doubt it. If I was forced to pick a fourth teen, I’d lean toward Alex Poythress if only because he kinda fit Shabazz’s profile of a high scoring kid playing the like of a walking bucket in high school. Poythress dropped 29.8 points per game on his senior year paired with some not bad 7.3 rebounds per game. He might have carried that and his ranking to a late first round selection.

Which players COULD have gone prep-to-pros?

The only one of the four players mentioned above who could have gone straight to the Association is Nerlens Noel. Not only did he became a sixth overall pick when he declared for the draft after not playing an entire year at Kentucky, but he also did so while carrying an ACL injury. He could have perfectly skipped college as an already big enough man—although a bit skinny, truth be told—dodged the bullet of that ACL, and gone on to have a good NBA career, probably better than his current one if he had been patient on his development and had avoided injuries.

Marcus Smart ate rivals alive in his two years at Oklahoma State. Seriously. I don’t think he could have considered an early jump himself back in 2012. His rise through the ranks happened mostly during his senior year when he started to show infinite effort on the court at the high school level, but I’m not entirely sure he would have tried to make the most of that by declaring as a teenager. That being said, it’s pretty clear he could have done so, become a second-round draftee, and give plenty of happiness to whoever had drafted him. Although he spent two years at OSU, Smart was the best defender among freshmen in 2013—by a sizable margin—while starting 32 of 33 games and averaging a resounding 15-6-4 line with 3 (!) steals per game. His sophomore year was more of the same, he improved his defense, and he also bumped his scoring numbers up.

What about Steven Adams? The Kiwi played just one year in the NCAA circuit at Pitt and he was pretty nice in his lone season posting the sixth-best Defensive Rating among freshmen. His numbers didn’t jump off the page (7 points and 6 rebounds with 2 blocks per game), but he was a very valuable asset for the Panthers while helping them reach the bracket in 2013 before declaring. Looking at his rookie NBA season, the truth is that it might have taken a little bit of development for him to reach his level, and it took a while for Adams to really explode at the pros, but he was one of the best newcomers of 2014 playing 81 games and having the highest WS/48 of players aged 20 that year (only behind sophomores Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond).

Which players did scouts WHIFFED on the most?

Starting with the bad, there is no doubt that all of Isaiah Austin, Alex Poythress, Kaleb Tarczewski, and Grant Jerrett were absolute whiffs in retrospect. Austin might get a pass because of his health condition, but the other three were disappointing at best, horrific and a nightmare at worst.

Alex Poythress was promising at the start of his collegiate career, becoming part of the All-Freshman SEC team in 2013 and then doing not much until he declared for the draft four years into his amateur career after graduating to become and undrafted FA. He got picked by Orlando for the 2016 Summer League, dropped and signed by the Pacers, waived, acquired by the then-D-League Fort Wayne Mad Ants, and finally got to the NBA via Philadelphia in 2017 debuting in 2017 and playing 52 games through three seasons before bolting to the Chinese CBA.

Kaleb Tarczewski also spent four years in college playing for Arizona and ultimately going undrafted too in 2016 although he left the NCAA averaging a not bad 9-9 line in his senior year in 27.4 mpg. Tarczewski could never stick around any NBA franchise, going from Detroit to Washington, then Oklahoma City. Never debuting in the Association, he ran out of patience in 2017 and took a flight to Milan to join Olimpia Milano, where he is still playing pro hoops.

The career of Grant Jerrett is bonkers. He played in Arizona next to Kaleb for two years, became a second-round draftee in 2013 thanks to Portland, was traded to OKC that very same night, and then drafted again five months later by D-League’s Tulsa 66ers as the 1st-overall player off the board. He finally reached the NBA in 2014 dropping 3 buckets on the Knicks in November that year to see himself traded to Utah three months later. He would play three games for the Jazz before exiting the league and going on to play in Canton, Beijing, Japan, Bosnia, Germany, and now Turkey. Oofffff.

As for those players scouts missed on badly, or at least moderately, but now on the positive side of things, I have to re-mention LeVert (no. 239) and Hield (no. 156). Both are currently important players for their NBA teams but it definitely took both time to develop and find their games, both at college and now the pro-level of play.

The best value of the class in terms of WS compared to his rank is the one provided by no. 81 Montrezl Harrell, who has already racked up 26.2 WS in the NBA. If you have read earlier columns of this series you know I don’t consider such ranking a “true” whiff. To be ranked around the top 150 players is quite an accomplishment, so let alone being a virtual top 80 prospect.

On the same vein you can find the likes of Denzel Valentine (no. 112), Nik Stauskas (no. 110), or even Alex Caruso (no. 85). Further down the ranks, although clearly not very valuable we find active NBA players such as Abdel Nader (no. 243) and Damyean Dotson (no. 262).