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!
2008 HS Class: Top-10 Prospects
2008 Top-10 HS Prospects
|2008||1||Brandon Jennings||Oak Hill Academy (Mouth Of Wilson, VA)||PG||6'0||170||5||9.996||1||1||1||N/A|
|2008||2||B.J. Mullens||Canal Winchester (Canal Winchester, OH)||C||7'1||265||5||9.993||2||1||1||Ohio State|
|2008||3||Jrue Holiday||Campbell Hall School (Valley Village, CA)||PG||6'3||200||5||9.991||3||2||1||UCLA|
|2008||4||Samardo Samuels||St Benedict's Preparatory School (Newark, NJ)||PF||6'9||230||5||9.987||4||1||1||Louisville|
|2008||5||Tyreke Evans||American Christian School (Aston, PA)||PG||6'5||205||5||9.986||5||3||1||Memphis|
|2008||6||DeMar DeRozan||Compton (Compton, CA)||SG||6'5||195||5||9.983||6||1||2||USC|
|2008||7||Scotty Hopson||University Heights Academy (Hopkinsville, KY)||SG||6'5||185||5||9.978||7||2||1||Tennessee|
|2008||8||Greg Monroe||Helen Cox (Harvey, LA)||PF||6'10||220||5||9.960||8||2||1||Georgetown|
|2008||9||Al-Farouq Aminu||Norcross (Norcross, GA)||SF||6'8||210||5||9.958||9||1||1||Wake Forest|
|2008||10||Ed Davis||Benedictine (Richmond, VA)||PF||6'8||215||5||9.958||10||3||2||North Carolina|
The class of 2008 was very solid. It wasn’t nothing to get too excited about during the months leading up to commitment-season, as it lacked true star power as considered back then, but there were still a bunch of very promising kids in the ranks—and even more buried down the list that would go on to have magnificent pro-careers and who turned out to be the true gems of the ‘08 crop.
The consensus nationally eight-best player, Greg Monroe, had been hyped since his junior season and he maintained that highly-coveted profile closing his senior year at Helen Cox and making his way to Georgetown in the NCAA. That was good and all, but the story of this class was not that of a junior solidifying his position among his peers, but rather a no. 1 prospect taking his talents all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
That’s right. Brandon Jennings’ case is worth study in detail, although that would take another article or two written separately from this to truly cover properly. BJ played his senior year at powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, became a bona fide stud and flew to Europe to play for Lottomatica Roma in Italy instead of enrolling in any US college. The money was neat ($1.2 million dollars) and in 2008, Jennings became the first American teenager to forego the NCAA one-year rule and go play with pros in Europe for a year while waiting for his name to be heard in the NBA draft, some predestined to happen in months time.
Just two true-big men were part of the top-10 of this class, and only four inside the top-15 were 6’8 or taller. This was a year to be a guard, indeed. Of those, Compton native DeMar DeRozan would have the best pro career (66.5 WS as of this writing) after playing collegiate ball at USC while he would be followed by Greg Monroe (49.7) and Jrue Holiday (43.0). Scouts didn’t deem Kemba Walker good enough to grant him a top-10 spot—most probably because he was super undersized at just 6’1, the smallest player among the top-50 prospects of this class—yet Kemba would become legendary in college and is currently the fourth-best pro to come out of this class by WS (54.0). Who would have told... Oh, and what about a nationally-unranked kid by the name of Gordon Hayward!
Of the top-15 players of the ‘08 class, only two of them didn’t reach the NBA: William Buford, and Delvon Roe. At least Scotty Hopson can say that he had a few cups-of-coffee as he played two games for the Cavs in 2014 and another one with the Mavs in 2018. Something to brag about, for sure.
Which players WOULD have gone prep-to-pros?
Of course, Brandon Jennings did jump straight to the pros, only he was blocked his way to the NBA early so he had to find his place in Europe. It is a no-brainer to think of BJ as a potential early-comer had he been allowed to get to the NBA instead of having to look elsewhere knowing what he did, favoring going overseas rather than playing college-ball.
Greg Monroe’s long-coveted name would have also made for a good pro-proposition. The kid had been making the rounds for long, was known all around the nation even before entering his senior HS year, and it is not hard to imagine him declaring early and getting drafted inside the first round as the league was still high on big men, of which he was one of the very few greats in this class. That being said, and given that we know how he spent two years in college, it still makes one wonder if he would have carried all that hype to the draft by declaring or if he would have kept calm by taking the long route there. The same goes for B.J. Mullens, another big that could have jumped to try and get into the League early given the pedigree he was carrying at the time.
This class only produced four one-and-done players, and that is including Jennings, so it is not that most of these kids had it clear that they could jump straight to the Association and succeed from the get-go as teenagers there among men. William Buford, who would never make it to the NBA, had a monster senior year at Libbey HS averaging 23-11 and getting MCDAAG and Jordan Classic nods, also getting named Ohio Mr. Basketball. That sounds more than enough for him to have jumped early and why not getting drafted even as a second-rounder. Would have he been able to establish himself in the L? We’ll never know, but chances are high. Buford is still active these days and most recently was named the 2019 MVP of The Basketball Tournament. Not bad.
The no. 11 player in the class, Willie Warren, was probably another lock to make the jump and try his luck. As a senior Warren dropped almost 25 points per game to go with 4 dimes, 4 boards, 4 steals, and a block per game. Those were pretty good numbers and in fact, Warren made it to the NBA as a Clipper after getting drafted in the 2010 second round. Injuries derailed his career a bit, though, but as he sustained those in college it is probable that having played in the NBA early he would have gone on to have a clean pro-career completely different from his current one.
Which players COULD have gone prep-to-pros?
There were some clear-cut teen pros here, including Brandon Jennings, DeMar DeRozan, and Greg Monroe. Any of those could—and probably would—have made the jump straight to the NBA while being relatively successful playing rookie basketball among men in the Association from day one. Getting into deeper waters, Samardo Samuels dominated the NCAA in his freshman year racking up 5.7 WS in his first collegiate season and being the third-best player from the ‘08 class at it. He could have tried his luck early and it’s almost guaranteed that he would have been drafted even if late. That being said, he never truly establish himself in the NBA so he might have amounted to nothing in the end no matter what.
Both Tyreke Evans and the aforementioned—and unranked—Gordon Hayward finished the 2008 NCAA season among the top-20 players in Win Shares, the only two freshmen to do so that year. It is a little bit unrealistic to think about Hayward as a potential early draft-entrant. I mean, he was unranked in the ‘08 class, so what were the chances any NBA team would have bet on him? He might have been able to make the jump now that we know how his career turned out in the pros, but he even struggled early once making it to the NBA so it’s hard to believe he would have gone to have a successful career if jumping so soon.
Tyreke Evans, though, was an established prospect (no. 5, remember) and his freshman year at Memphis confirmed what we already knew about his abilities. He led the Tigers to the tune of 17 points and 4 dimes per game to go with 2 steals per, and the very own Evans needed no more to get his name into the 2009 draft list. He was drafted fourth by the Sacramento Kings and he would have probably been a first-rounder had he declared early and straight out of HS, no problem.
I’m hesitant on Kemba Walker although he has ultimately triumphed in the NBA. He was too small and even if an NBA had drafted him late (think of Isaiah Thomas, a diminutive no. 60 pick) he might have found the pros too tough and quit on it—or just got ditched too soon by whoever had drafted him. Something similar happens with Ed Davis (no. 10) and Al-Farouq Aminu (no. 9). Both of them are still playing in the NBA, so there is clearly something in them, but none was a really good pro in his first two years in the league while they spent two years at college each. This last bit of information turned out better for Davis than Aminu, as the former got to win the Natty with the Tar Heels in 2009—mostly as a reserve—and that put him in the spotlight for the 2010 season and ultimately made him a 13th-overall pick that summer.
Which players did scouts WHIFFED on the most?
As always happens with these columns and retrospective analysis, the best part is to look at where the biggest mistakes were made by scouts. Can’t blame them too much, because nobody can see into the future, but here we are. And this was a monster-whiffing class at the very least.
First things first as I have already introduced him: Gordon Hayward was entirely unranked. There are 1,079 players in my dataset coming from the 2008 class. None of them is Hayward. That is incredible. Hayward wasn’t considered even a two-star recruit back then. He then enrolled in Butler, started all 32 games as a freshman and 37 as a sophomore, and ultimately became the 2011 9th-overall pick by the Utah Jazz and to these days a 52.9-WS player in the NBA. Insane whiff right there, even more considering he was already a 13-6-2 freshman in the NCAA.
Byron Mullens falls on the opposite side of the coin. He was ranked as the no. 2 player of his class but all he could do once turning pro was playing five seasons in the NBA and 189 before getting ousted for good at the end of 2014. Oh, and it is not that injuries played a part in his derailment. Let’s say he just didn’t have it in him and scouts put too much stock in the kid from way too early.
With those two out of the picture, things still get really interesting. Check the names and the ranks of these: Damian Lillard (no. 214), Paul George (no. 193), Isaiah Thomas (no. 213), Marcus Morris (no. 113), Markieff Morris (no. 118), and Kyle O’Quinn (no. 879!) just to name a few. You read them right, yes. Dame was absolutely flying under the radar back in 2008, same as PG13, but both of them lead the class in pro-WS at 79.9 and 69.1 respectively, edging DeRozan’s 66.5 at the end of the 2020 regular season.
The ranks weren’t entirely wrong, though. Lillard needed all of four years at Weber State to become the 6th-overall pick in 2012. Paul George spent two at Fresno State and was drafted with the 2010 10th-overall pick. Isaiah Thomas was the last draftee of 2011 after spending two years in Washington, and the Morris twins spent three seasons in Kansas before getting drafted back-to-back with the 13th and 14th picks of the 2011 draft.