For my money, the NBA is currently about as interesting as it’s ever been. I definitely don’t watch as much professional basketball as I did while I was in college, high school or even younger than that, but I love loosely keeping up with the league and its current generation of fun young talent: Giannis Antetokounmpo with Milwaukee, Anthony Davis with New Orleans, Karl-Anthony Towns with Minnesota, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid with Philadelphia, even the he’s-only-25-years-old Brad Beal, of University of Florida fame, with Washington.
If the NBA hadn’t changed its rules in 2006, though, these players could potentially have much different careers right now. That was the year when the NBA began disallowing players to enter the league straight out of high school, requiring prospects to play one year of basketball elsewhere — either in college or professionally overseas — before entering the draft.
Giannis came over from Europe at age 18; it’s at least slightly unlikely that he would have declared for the draft a year sooner even if he had been permitted. If he had declared earlier, he likely would have a pretty similar draft slot. He was taken 15th overall in the 2013 NBA draft, primarily based on potential.
Anthony Davis was the No. 1 ranked prospect in the 2011 high school basketball recruiting class per 247Sports. He played one year at Kentucky before becoming the first overall pick in the 2012 draft.
Karl-Anthony Towns was the No. 5 ranked prospect in the 2014 recruiting class. He too played one year at Kentucky before becoming the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
Ben Simmons was the No. 1 ranked prospect in the 2015 recruiting class. He chose a different SEC school, and played one season at LSU before becoming the first overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Joel Embiid was the No. 13 ranked prospect in the 2013 recruiting class. He played at Kansas for a year before becoming the third overall pick in the 2014 draft.
Brad Beal was the No. 4 ranked prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. He played one year for the University of Florida Gators before becoming the third overall pick in the 2012 draft. If he’d stayed one more year at UF, the Gators likely win the title in 2012. Just FYI. UConn doesn’t beat that Gators team in the Final Four with Beal thrown in.
While Embiid had some injury concerns coming out of Kansas and Giannis had only moderate statistical success playing professionally in Europe, the rest of the players shared one trait in common: They’d proven themselves for a full season at competitive levels of college basketball. While college teams don’t play seasons as long as the NBA does, they do play longer seasons than high school teams and the top freshmen each season compete regularly against players who can be more experienced, stronger, and more mature than they are, if perhaps not necessarily as talented.
Before the NBA’s 2006 rule change, the top prospects in each crop of high school players frequently chose to forego college and enter the league directly out of school. This is the topic of Jonathan Abrams’ well-reported book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Abrams details the trend of high-schoolers jumping into the NBA without any college experience and how this highly talented generation became some of the best players to ever play in the league. The modern prep-to-pro era began with Kevin Garnett’s selection as the fifth draft pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1995, followed closely by Kobe Bryant’s selection as the 13th pick in the 1996 draft by the Charlotte Hornets (who traded him on draft day to the Lakers). Jermaine O’Neal was drafted just four picks after Bryant in 1996, and Tracy McGrady followed in 1997.
Garnett and Bryant cast the mold that would lead a total of 39 high-school players to become NBA draft picks between 1995 and 2005. Some of these players would become notable talents for their generation; aside from the few mentioned above, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron James and Dwight Howard took the prep-to-pro route. James (2003) and Howard (2004) were the second and third high-school players to be selected with the first overall pick in the draft, with the first being Kwame Brown in 2001. Several other players built long-lasting NBA careers after jumping straight into the league, including Al Harrington, Tyson Chandler, Shaun Livingston, Al Jefferson and more.
In 2004, an all-time high of eight high school players were selected in the first round of the draft, all off the board by the 18th overall pick; by comparison, only four college seniors were selected in the first round of that draft, a group that included the 20th and 25th selections. The 2001 draft saw four high-school players selected within the first eight picks. Clearly, the prep-to-pro trend was significant enough to draw major attention during the decade of its heyday.
Where players like Garnett, Bryant and James stand out as generation-defining talents, though, there are plenty of cautionary tales that back up the waves of criticism about the trend. Ultimately, this resulted in the 2006 rule disallowing these talented players to begin their careers as early as they would have liked. In his book, Abrams takes the time to highlight the journeys of prep-to-pro players across the spectrum: Early on, you get terrific, rich storytelling about Garnett and Bryant as young men. The book is easy to read and incredibly insightful. For these players, it was clear from an early age that they had the drive and the love for the game of basketball that would have resulted in them becoming successful ballplayers regardless of whether they had gone to college for a year or not; here’s a passage detailing a conversation between Garnett in his rookie training camp and Kevin McHale, then the GM for the Minnesota Timberwolves":
McHale trained a close eye on Garnett during those nascent days. He approached Garnett between practices one day. Garnett rested his back against the bleachers. His body would have collapsed without the support.
“This is really hard,” Garnett told McHale. “How did you do this for so long?” McHale wanted to walk the fine line between coddling and nurturing Garnett. “You’re supposed to be tired,” McHale said. “Training camp is tiring. The first one is always the toughest.”
McHale left Garnett alone to prepare for the day’s next session. He figured Garnett would deliver a lackluster performance. “Then practice started and you would’ve never known he was exhausted or tired because he had a motor to play that was so impressive,” McHale said. “I remember thinking at that moment that he was going to be OK.”
That type of drive and passion and will wasn’t present in all of the players who made the choice to jump from high school to the NBA. Some declared for the draft on bad advice and either got drafted in the second round and never made an impact, or went completely undrafted; others were drafted to organizations who weren’t prepared to help such young players adjust to life as a professional; others were drafted with high picks but never got to the level they needed to reach emotionally, mentally or physically to become success stories.
Even despite a rookie season that eventually saw him progress to a starting role and averages of 10.4 points per game and 6.3 rebounds per game in nearly 29 minutes per game, Garnett was wide-eyed at how difficult the league was in terms of its grinding style:
But if he had opened a door for other high school players to jump directly to the NBA, he did not want to be responsible for leaving it open. “I’ve heard that there are high school kids who are thinking about going straight to the NBA like I did,” Garnett told USA Today. “Well, they’re crazy. I’d tell them to put aside all the money, the girls and the fame…I’d tell them, There’s nothing easy about the NBA. If I could have gone to college, I would have in a heartbeat.” The league wasn’t a joke.
Garnett would take a huge step forward in his second season, averaging 17 points and 8 rebounds per game in Kobe Bryant’s rookie year. Kobe is a player whose intense work ethic and burning passion for the game has been well-documented, and Jerry West recalls seeing signs of Kobe’s competitiveness in a pre-draft workout. He was relentless during the hour-long session that cemented West’s desire to draft him at all costs. But plenty of other players fell out of the NBA sooner than they otherwise might have if they had taken the time to mature and grow for a couple years in college.
What a prospect may become was more tantalizing than what had been established. The ending only sometimes synced with the prediction. Yes, they got drafted—the ones who did—by an NBA team. They lived the dream, but it did not feel like one anymore. Basketball became work. It involved sweating hard, bending over and tugging at shorts, puffing-for-air–type work. Kevin Garnett knew this. So did Kobe Bryant. But some of the other kids who attempted to jump to the NBA in their shadows remained clueless. […]
Most NBA coaches and executives advised that the real dream, the one with substance, was not to make it to the NBA. That was just the beginning. The goal was to make a mark in the league, one worthy enough to receive a second and third contract. Instead, their 15 minutes of fame may have lasted a couple of years, maybe three. The rest of their lives, which they had never bothered concerning themselves with, now loomed.
Abrams’ book delves into plenty of satellite topics related to the prep-to-pro generation, too. There’s a good chunk about the sneaker wars when Nike and Adidas would bid to sponsor the next great basketball player; there’s a lot of storytelling about Michael Jordan’s time with the Washington Wizards, including the scouting and drafting of Kwame Brown, who Jordan personally selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft. Brown turned in to a bust considering where he was selected, while a slightly older Pau Gasol, who already had three years of playing professionally in Spain under his belt, turned into a much more productive and impactful NBA player as the third pick in the same draft.
While Abrams’ book triumphs in reporting and structure, it sometimes lacks from a pure writing point of view. Abrams has his moments of prose, but the tone of the book flip-flops at times, which can make for awkward passages or a sense of misplacement. This is easily overcome by the relatively short nature of the book at only 310 pages overall.
Boys Among Men is a no-brainer to check out for any 20- or 30-something who watched Kobe and KG and T-Mac dominate the NBA in the ‘90s. It’s an educational and insightful look back at one of the most influential groups of athletes to play any sport in the last few decades, and an enjoyable read to boot.
Boys Among Men is available as an IRL book and an e-book on Amazon. It's also available on Audible; if you click this link, you can get a free trial of Audible that includes two free audiobooks. Even if you cancel your trial, you'll get to keep these two books. Also: clicking on any of the Amazon links in this post, and purchasing something from them, provides a small kickback to the author of the blog you just read.