For decades, the National Basketball Association (NBA) had a rule that required players to be two years out of high school before they could enter the NBA draft. At the same time, the league didn’t put much effort into recruiting players from other countries. Much has changed in the last 25 years.
Through the years, the age eligibility rule has evolved to the point that eligible players must now be 19 years old or older. International players have to be at least 22 years old and have played professional ball in another country. Also, they must not have played high school basketball in the United States.
Given these guidelines, the last couple of generations of high school players have had to make choices. They have had to choose between playing abroad until eligible for the NBA, sitting out a year or two, or playing college ball for as long as necessary.
Passing Up On College Ball
For some NBA players (recent and in the past), going to college just never made sense. In some cases, it was a grades issue while other players simply decided playing in college wasn’t in their financial interest.
Of course one unfortunate consequence for those who forego college was they never got a chance to participate in the NCAA’s College Basketball March Madness Tournament.
For a moment, we’ll assume that a great high school player would likely be great in college. If a college team has a great player, there is a reasonable chance the player will eventually lead their team into the tournament. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule of thumb, but those exceptions are far and few.
As we try to compile a list of great basketball players who never played in a March Madness game, we are going to focus on players that bypassed college altogether. This list will also include international players. We’ll attempt to measure the players in terms of their accomplishments at the pro level.
1. Lebron James
Attended St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Ohio and made the direct jump to the NBA in 2003. He is currently the second-leading scorer in NBA history with 36,929 and counting as of March 20, 2022.
2. Kobe Bryant
Affectionately known as the “Black Mamba”, Bryant was drafted in 1996 directly out of high school at the age of 19. Before his tragic death in 2020, he had accumulated five NBA championships, two Finals MVPs, and one league MVP award.
3. Kevin Garnett
At the age of 19, Garnett officially became the first NBA player drafted out of high school under the new rules. He was drafted in 1995 and went on to a stellar 21 year career that included claiming the NBA MVP in 2004.
4. Moses Malone
Malone was drafted out of Petersburg High School (Petersburg, Virginia) in 1974 by the ABA Utah Stars. He would later transition to the NBA where he earned NBA MVP honors three times while playing with the Philadelphia 76ers.
5. Dirk Nowitzki
Nowitzki is arguably the greatest international player to grace the NBA. The German born player played pro ball oversees before getting drafted by the Dallas Mavericks by way of the Milwaukee Bucks in 1998. He is the only European/international player to be ever named NBA MVP.
6. Tracy McGrady
McGrady was drafted right out of the Mount Zion Christian Academy (Durham, North Carolina) in 1997 at the age of 19. He played with the Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic, and Houston Rockets in a career the spanned 16 years and included two NBA scoring titles.
7. Yao Ming
The Chinese-born Ming was drafted in 2002 by the Houston Rockets where he went on to become an 8-time NBA All-Star. At 7’5″, the former Shanghai, China resident was one of the tallest players to ever play in the league. He was also arguably the best Asian player to ever pick up a basketball.
Rounding out the top 15:
8. Pau Gasol out of Spain
9. Giannis Antetokounmpo out of Greece
11. Dwight Howard out of the Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy (Atlanta, Georgia)
12. Shawn Kemp out of Concord H.S. (Elkhart, Indiana)
13. Manu Ginobli out of Argentina
14. Marc Gasol out of Spain (brother to Pau)
15. Luka Doncic out of Slovenia