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Rebuilding the Prep-To-Pro NBA History: Class of 2017

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.

2017 CIF Southern Section Boys Open Division Championship - Semifinals Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/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!

2017 HS Class: Top-10 Prospects

2017 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
2017 1 Marvin Bagley Sierra Canyon (Tempe, AZ) PF 6'10.5 221 5 9.999 1 1 1 Duke
2017 2 Michael Porter Nathan Hale (Seattle, WA) SF 6'10 213 5 9.998 2 1 1 Missouri
2017 3 Mohamed Bamba Westtown School (New York, NY) PF 7'0 216 5 9.993 3 2 1 Texas
2017 4 Deandre Ayton Hillcrest Hoops (Phoenix, AZ) PF 7'0 250 5 9.992 4 3 2 Arizona
2017 5 Collin Sexton Pebblebrook (Mableton, GA) PG 6'2 182 5 9.981 5 1 1 Alabama
2017 6 Trevon Duval IMG Academy (Bradenton, FL) PG 6'3 190 5 9.981 6 2 1 Duke
2017 7 Wendell Carter Pace Academy (Atlanta, GA) PF 6'10 262 5 9.981 7 4 2 Duke
2017 8 Jaren Jackson La Lumiere School (La Porte, IN) PF 6'10 226 5 9.977 8 5 1 Michigan State
2017 9 Mitchell Robinson Chalmette (Chalmette, LA) C 7'0 222 5 9.973 9 1 2 Western Kentucky
2017 10 Hamidou Diallo Putnam Science Academy (Queens Village, NY) SG 6'5 195 5 9.964 10 1 1 Kentucky
2017 Top-10 HS Prospects

This is the second-to-last class that we’re going to cover in this series, and at the time of this writing the last one to contain second-year college players instead of just one-and-dones. That little fact might not seem important, or actually not be important at all. That is because all but one player ranked inside the top-20 turned pro after just one season in college—if playing NCAA-ball at all. You are safe labeling this as the “ultimate one-and-done class”, that’s for sure.

The no. 1 of the 2017 HS class was tightly battled between two wings, Marvin Bagley—more on him later—and Michael Porter Jr, with every scouting platform ranking them either first or second among their peers. Something similar happened with tier-two big men Mo Bamba and Deandre Ayton, who both finished really close inside the 3rd/4th spots.

As happened one year before, scouts got it very right in 2017. The top-13 players in the composite rankings from 247Sports have already played in the NBA, no. 14 Brandon McCoy went undrafted and played G League basketball this season, and then prospects 15th-to-19th have either played in the NBA or are still in college with chances of making it to the L (no. 18 Nick Richards).

Just outside the top-20, though, is where the best player to come out of this class can be found: no. 23 Trae Young. It’s only been two years of professional basketball at most for these kids, but hey, we can’t take anything from Young during that time. Oh, and you might find interesting that Ja Morant was left out of the top-10, right? Well, he was left out of the top-10 and he was also completely off the 2017 recruiting boards. That’s right. Morant went absolutely under the radar, couldn’t crack even the top-500 player list, and enrolled in Murray State, from the Ohio Valley Conference. Talk about an underdog, and a very very resounding whiff.

The saddest—or at least weirdest—tale from this class probably comes from no. 20 Billy Preston. Preston committed to Kansas but suffered an accident just at the start of the 2017 season, which kept him from every playing for the Jayhawks amid investigations and other issues, ultimately making him quit college. Not that he had it bad, though, as he went on to win the 2018 Bosnian Cup. Brandon McCoy, the 14th-best player in the nation in 2017 is the only true miss, as the declared for the draft after one year at UNLV but went undrafted in 2018 and is the only top-17 players to have not made it to the NBA yet.

Which players WOULD have gone prep-to-pros?

I’m going to start low and mention Trae Young here. When asked about his choice of playing college-ball at Oklahoma instead of at a blue-blood house, Trae said “for those that know me, they will tell you that I’ve always done things differently”. You aren’t convincing me this walking bucket would have not jumped earlier if given the chance. Even more, Young had already been named Gatorade State POY two times, and held the state’s all-time scoring record with 2,896 pops. That’s some resume to present at the NBA draft and getting picked by some team, for sure.

Now for the obvious choice: Marvin Bagley was originally part of the 2018 HS class, but reclassified to the 2017 one and making him eligible for the 2018 NCAA season, which he played at Duke. Had he been presented with the chance of entering the 2017 draft, I don’t have many doubts he would have grabbed and run with it. We’re talking about a kid that was balling with NBA players that summer in the Drew League and dropping a 18-20 line in the tournament’s all-star game. Not bad.

You know about Trae Young already. Time to move on to his EYBL teammate and Co-MVP of the 2016 edition Michael Porter Jr. That award was cool and all, but he averaged just 26.2 ppg and 11.5 rpg there while he stepped all the way up to 36.2 ppg and 13.6 rpg in his senior year. That’s no joke at all, as it isn’t the MCDAAG MVP he got in 2017. This is another one of those true what-ifs because MPJ would join Mizzou in the NCAA to get injured just minutes into the season opener, missing virtually the whole season (he played two more games later that year). Even with that, you know the kid had something when Denver risked a 14th-overall pick in him in 2018... and look at his exploits in the bubble this summer in his rookie-season.

Mitchell Robinson, the no. 9 prospect of the 2017 senior class, would have probably made the jump too. He committed to Western Kentucky University but after a series of events the university suspended him for “violating the team rules” so he opted to forgo college preparing for the 2018 draft by himself.

The other mega-lock to have jumped earlier is Deandre Ayton. Before Baley reclassified and Michael Porter Jr. soared up the ranks, Ayton had been the no. 1 prospect from the 2017 crop for three straight years. Ayton already had a built frame by the time he finished HS and although he’s far from a stretch-big he would have definitely found a place in the NBA early. Mo Bamba, the other great big from 2017, might have also tried his luck and declare for the draft as a teen, most probably ending a first-rounder.

Which players COULD have gone prep-to-pros?

As expected, both Ayton (the forever-best recruit of the 2017 class) and Bagley (the last-minute-best) went on to dominate in their freshman NCAA seasons. As simple as that. They finished fifth and seventh in WS among all players, from freshmen to seniors. They could have made the jump without missing a bit.

Trae Young’s game was also suited for the NBA as he embodied the Steph Curry philosophy of bombing-away three-pointers averaging 10.3 attempts (most) and hitting 3.7 (second-most) of them per game in college, also among all players.

Somebody that I haven’t mentioned in this column yet is Wendell Carter Jr. He had a really good freshman year, but it also should be considered that he played in a stacked Duke team that probably boosted his numbers up a bit. He might have found a place in the NBA early at least as a second-round draftee, though, even more knowing what he’s done in his two seasons in Chicago.

Finally, whatever Mitchell Robinson did by himself preparing for the 2018 draft did wonders for the kid. Had he jumped early, he probably would have gone under the radar, became an undrafted free agent, and who knows what would have happened to him or where would he be these days. But had any team drafted him, there is no doubt he could have probably built a similar arc to the one he’s had in his two years playing for the Knicks. Robinson has 12.9 WS in the NBA, by far the most by any member of the 2017 class (Trae Young is second at 9.2, at a distance similar to that between Young and no. 7 in WS Wendell Carter), and he’s one of the most efficient players in the league already with his .710 True Shooting percentage.

Which players did scouts WHIFFED on the most?

It is almost impossible to write about whiffs with such a small sample being available. Most players, even in a class loaded with one-and-done kids, have yet to have a real shot at the NBA, and those who have made it were virtually all ranked inside the top-100.

Now, tackling the elephant in the room first, the most obvious whiff was clearly that of Ja Morant, who even playing AAU-ball in the same team as Zion was entirely discarded by scouts. He went on to put up a 12-6-6 line as a freshman playing for Murray State and then doubled-down on that with averages of 24.5 ppg, 10 apg, and 5.7 rpg in his sophomore season. It was only at the end of the 2019 year when we all—yes, we all, don’t be a liar—realized what we had in front of us. And here he is now, Rookie Of the Year and all...

Of the other players with a game in the NBA already, the most slept-on might have been Nicolas Claxton (no. 231). Even then, Claxton just played his rookie season in 2020 (15 games for the Nets) and got drafted with the first pick of the 2019 second round.

At this point in time, it would make sense to label no. 11 Kevin Knox a scout-bust after his two pro-seasons for a negative -1.2 WS in New York while both no. 23 Trae Young and no. 31 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have become the second- and third-best players of the 2017 crop with 9.2 and 8.9 WS respectively.