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 high school 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!
2016 HS Class: Top-10 Prospects
2016 Top-10 HS Prospects
|2016||1||Josh Jackson||Justin-Siena (Detroit, MI)||SG||6'7||202||5||9.999||1||1||1||Kansas|
|2016||2||Harry Giles||Oak Hill Academy (Winston Salem, NC)||PF||6'11||222||5||9.996||2||1||1||Duke|
|2016||3||Lonzo Ball||Chino Hills (Chino, CA)||PG||6'6||170||5||9.988||3||1||1||UCLA|
|2016||4||Jayson Tatum||Chaminade (Saint Louis, MO)||SF||6'8||208||5||9.987||4||1||1||Duke|
|2016||5||Markelle Fultz||DeMatha Catholic (Hyattsville, MD)||CG||6'4||170||5||9.986||5||1||1||Washington|
|2016||6||De'Aaron Fox||Cy Lakes (Katy, TX)||PG||6'3||171||5||9.981||6||2||1||Kentucky|
|2016||7||Dennis Smith Jr.||Trinity Christian School (Fayetteville, NC)||PG||6'2||180||5||9.975||7||3||1||N.C. State|
|2016||8||Jonathan Isaac||IMG Academy (Hollywood, FL)||SF||6'10||185||5||9.972||8||2||1||Florida State|
|2016||9||Bam Adebayo||High Point Christian Academy (Pinetown, NC)||PF||6'9||232||5||9.970||9||2||2||Kentucky|
|2016||10||Thon Maker||Athlete Institute Basketball Academy (Ontario, CA)||PF||7'0||205||5||9.965||10||3||1||N/A|
Two things defined the 2016 high school class: Big Baller Brand and Josh “mega-dud” Jackson. And even though the latter is (at the time of this writing at least) making history himself, we all know that the former story and everything surrounding Lonzo Ball was absolutely magnified and turned the older of the Balls into the true highlight of this crop, for the better or the worse.
Basketball fan or not, you know LeBron James, and probably also know his story back to his early-aughts’ high school days. He was a phenom, movies were made covering his exploits, and he reached every corner of the nation even before turning 18. Enter his 2.0 version—off the court, that is—in Lonzo Ball. The Ball family was a TV show (literally) no matter how you look at it. Josh Jackson was almost the consensus no. 1 player in the class, but he got clearly out-shined by Ball and the Triple-B.
Only Harry Giles (no. 2) was able to get ranked as the best player from the 2016 class other than Jackson, and only one recruiting service was brave to do so four years ago. It is not that Lonzo Ball was a bad player, ranking third-overall in his class, but playing for Chino Hills was definitely going to favor him all day, every day, and it was more about the stuff that was happening off the court than that taking place inside of it that brought all of the attention to Lonzo.
Anyways, and focusing on hoops, this class was truly loaded (take it with a grain of salt, though, as it’s still early in all of these kids’ careers). Jackson and Giles, the clear one-two punch of 2016, were joined by Ball and two more potential studs inside the top-5: Jayson Tatum and Markelle Fultz. And just below them you could find names such as those of Fox, DSJ, Jonathan Isaac, or Bam Adebayo. Just in case you need anything else to validate how highly this class was regarded, Duke and Kentucky combined to recruit eight of the top-15 players in it. More than half of them. That’s crazy.
The hit-rate in terms of ranking future pro-players here was also super high, with all top-18 players having already played at least one game in the NBA as of this writing. Considering 2020 was still the senior-college year for some of the players in this class, there is still time for some of them to make it there, for sure.
Oh, and about that “mega-dud” label I hung on Josh Jackson’s forehead: he is the only no. 1 recruit (since 2006, when the prep-to-pros route was blocked) to have logged negative Win Shares (minus-1.8) in his career (min. two seasons as a pro) to date. History in the making, folks.
Which players WOULD have gone prep-to-pros?
If you think LaVar Ball wouldn’t have thrown Lonzo’s body toward the NBA draft as soon as possible you’re absolutely wrong. This man had a plan in his head since Lonzo and the rest of the brothers were born, and had the NBA left the prep-to-pros route open, then LaVar would have re-built his plan to put Zo & Co. in the Association asap, Lakers or not. Ball was such a phenom that there is no doubt he would have jumped, and because of basketball reasons or marketing ones, at least one franchise would have been eager to draft him to rip the potential rewards. Whether or not those rewards would have arrived is another story.
Four more insanely talented players that would have gone pros as teenagers: Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, Josh Jackson and Thon Maker.
Let’s start with the less obvious in Maker, as it makes sense because he actually jumped from prep-to-pros! Maker generated tons of buzz coming from Sudan to the States and playing high school ball-in multiple preps until landing in his last-stop Orangeville District Secondary School. Maker was this close to reclassify to the class of 2015, but ultimately played high school-basketball in 2016 and stayed in his true class.
Maker declared for the 2016 draft, was able to prove he had graduated one year earlier and was already a five-year high school player, cleared the minimum-age declaration limit, and thus he became the first prep-to-pro player to make it to the NBA since the League banned such path. Kudos to the man!
The other three cases were pretty similar. All of Giles, Jackson, and Tatum were studs at the high school level and had been making headlines at least since their junior seasons. The fact that Giles suffered a season-ending injury while still in high school as a senior gives me a little pause in terms of what we would have done with his career back in the summer of 2016. He was the no. 1 player in ESPN rankings, and he would have probably become a first-rounder had he jumped earlier, but the injury paired with his young age would have definitely impacted his draft stock.
Tatum was the 2016 National POY after averaging 29.6 ppg and 9.1 rpg as a senior playing at Chaminade, and Josh Jackson did more of the same with his 26.9 ppg and 13.1 rpg averages, getting named Co-MVP of that year’s McDonald’s All-American Game.
On the unexpected side of things, I’d throw Malik Monk into this group. Monk is just a shot-taker. He would have shot the hell out of an early-jump shot all day and tried his luck. I’m 100% convinced of it.
Which players COULD have gone prep-to-pros?
Definitely not Josh Jackson. LOL. Jokes aside, the other players mentioned above would and could have been good jumping to the Association as teenagers. You can also add Markelle Fultz. Yes, I said it.
There aren’t many players in Washington Huskies’ history that put up Fultz’s freshman numbers. The kid dropped 23.2 ppg per game, and dished out 5.7 dimes per too. He was a highly-coveted recruit, and that magnificent year—although not very successful for the team—only locked him into the no. 1 spot in the 2017 NBA draft. The yips would arrive later, and perhaps he might have suffered him anyways, but jumping from high school as the no. 5 ranked prospect perhaps would have put less pressure on him as he wouldn’t have been a no. 1 pick and he might have escaped his actual fate.
Two bigs could have perfectly tried his luck and made it to the NBA while still developing into what they are these days: Lauri Markkanen and Zach Collins. Both became one-and-done college players, thrived as freshmen in Arizona and Gonzaga respectively, and didn’t need much development in college as not to think they could have gotten something similar if drafted as teens.
Now, for a kind of surprising pick, enter Bam Adebayo. Bam spent just one year in Kentucky but he never really generated tons of noise. He did for me, though. Since the moment I first saw him play I felt something, seriously. And I’m glad he’s become the monster we know today. Things could have changed with an early jump, who knows, but in hindsight I’m sure he would have been a great early-jumper.
Which players did scouts WHIFFED on the most?
If you read the first part of this column above, you already know about it: Josh Jackson is the only no. 1 recruit since 2006 to have negative Win Shares (-1.8) in the NBA among those with at least two seasons as a pro (R.J. Barrett is also at minus-0.5 but he’s just completed his rookie season). Nobody, again, nobody has been as bad as Jackson has been while carrying such a pedigree as he did back in 2016.
It is not that he’s the only atrocious whiff of the class, though. No. 7 Dennis Smith Jr. has finished his third year as a pro in the NBA logging in at -1.6 himself at the end of the 2020 season. That makes it two resounding whiffs inside the top-10. Ugh.
Nothing else so glaring to keep killing our beloved scouts here, though. But oh boy, did they miss on potential gems buried down the ranks. While it is still super early to tell, no. 182 Josh Okogie looks like someone with good potential to make it further in the NBA. Same for no. 191 Grant Williams, no. 148 Rui Hachimura, and no. 134 De’Anthony Melton.
All things considered, though, and with the small sample we have available, it must be said that the overall assessment of prospects wasn’t that bad barring the Jackson-Smith Jr. pair. Of the top-10 players in NBA Win Shares as of the end of the 2020 season, only one ranked outside of the top-20: no. 36 Lauri Markkanen.