Posted by Neil Paine on January 27, 2010
For every season since 1979, the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia lists recruiting guru Bob Gibbons' top high school seniors, ranked 1-20. Every so often, I'm going to highlight these top prospects from a given year and take a look at what happened to them, as well as throw out the names of some players who may have slipped through the recruiting cracks but emerged as stars anyway. We'll start with the Year 2000, and a group whose best player (by far) wasn't even ranked among the 50 best prospects in the country...
1. Zach Randolph, F, Michigan State
Randolph turned many heads for the first time as the MVP of the 2000 McDonald's All-American Game, posting 23 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, one block and one steal against the top prep senior competition in the nation. Although some predicted he could be an NBA lottery pick if he declared for the draft, Randolph instead opted to attend Michigan State, whose Spartans had just won the National Championship in April 2000. Going into college, Randolph was regarded as the best big man prospect in the country, but the Spartans were so stacked that they brought him along slowly and still made the Final Four. Complaints also arose about Randolph's weight/conditioning habits, and his stock fell after a freshman year in which he scored 10.8 PPG, failing to make the kind of immediate game-changing impact some had expected.
Still, his hands & ability to score down low led the Blazers to draft him 19th overall in 2001. Like Tom Izzo at MSU, Portland coach Maurice Cheeks brought Randolph along slowly, giving him 13.0 MPG through his first two seasons (perhaps the most action he got those years was the time he sucker-punched Ruben Patterson in practice and had to hide out in Dale Davis' closet for fear that Patterson would shoot him, a classic Jail Blazers tale). However, his per-minute stats impressed as a 21-year-old 2nd-year player, and when he carried them over despite a huge hike in playing time, he became one of the poster children for the per-minute revolution.
Not that the stats painted a totally rosy picture for Z-Bo. After a 7.1 WS season in 2004, his first as a starter, Randolph's offensive efficiency fluctuated wildly in subsequent years, and his defensive reputation was hardly sterling. He bounced back from a poor 2006 season with a decent 2007 campaign, but injuries and a trip to hoops hell -- he was a member of the Knicks & Clippers in 2009 -- had some (myself included) questioning what Randolph had left in the tank. But shockingly, at age 28 he has turned around his game with the Grizzlies this season, posting arguably the best campaign of his career, a development that few saw coming.
It's still hard to think about Randolph being the top prospect in anything, but he has cobbled together a decent career at the NBA level. Maybe it's not quite what you would expect from a guy considered the best high school player in the country, but not every HS stud turns into LeBron James. If you spend any time perusing old recruiting rankings, you'll actually find that Randolph's pro production isn't really that bad for a #1 prospect.
2. Darius Miles - F, LA Clippers
Never before had a high school prospect been drafted 3rd overall, but Miles broke that mold when the Clippers took him in the 2000 Draft, hanging the hopes of their franchise on the lanky Illinois teen with athleticism, a ridiculous wingspan, and a floor game that belied his 6'9" frame. The only problem? Miles couldn't shoot a lick, as evidenced by his career .498 TS% (.590 FT%). For a player billed as The Next Kevin Garnett™, Miles' total lack of a jump shot was just one of the factors separating the hype from reality (KG had a .531 TS% and shot 74% from the line in his first two seasons; Miles had .517 and 57%, respectively). He was also much worse defensively, and shared none of KG's intense, burning work ethic to become one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Still, even if Miles wasn't going to be the next Garnett, he was at least tracking to be a solid pro through two seasons... Until he was traded to the Cavaliers for Andre Miller. Miller didn't exactly light the world on fire for L.A. either, but knee and back problems made Miles an unmitigated disaster in Cleveland, as he scored just 11.1 P/40 while shooting .410 from the field (a figure made worse by the fact that he literally never made a three -- going 0-for-14 from range -- was a turnover machine, stopped attacking the basket at all, and couldn't make a free throw). Add it all up, and Miles had one of the worst seasons of the decade in 2003, contributing greatly to the Cavs' ugly 17-win performance (which then-coach John Lucas would later say was part of a tanking scheme to secure the draft rights to LeBron James).
When Miles' production only marginally improved in 2004 despite better health, Cleveland shipped him to Portland for for Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje and Jeff McInnis ... and actually were better off for the trade! For his part, Miles proved to a great fit with the Jail Blazers, getting busted for drug possession and providing one of the WTF? moments of the era when during a film session, he repeatedly hurled racial slurs at then-Portland coach Mo Cheeks -- who is also African-American. When Miles blew out his knee in 2006, the Blazers were basically glad to be rid of him, and took steps in 2008 to try and shed the ridiculous 6-year, $48 million contract they had signed him to in the summer of 2004. This led to a bizarre legal entanglement involving Portland, Memphis, the League office, and the Players' Association, ultimately ending with the Blazers having to eat $18 million in salary after Miles contributed 34 games of replacement-level play to the Grizz in 2009.
Currently a 28-year-old free agent with a lengthy history of injuries, legal issues, and clubhouse-cancer behavior, you have to think there's a good chance Miles will never play again -- although you never know when some team will sign a guy like him to a 10-day contract for no apparent reason. Whatever happens, while it's laughable now to look back at Miles as a top-tier prospect, the simple truth is that he had the tools to succeed, but was never the sum of his parts. Sure, those parts didn't really ever include strength, shooting ability, or defense, but with a better attitude/work ethic and more commitment to the game, there's no doubt he could have been a decent player if he possessed the mental makeup to go with his physical tools. The injuries weren't his fault and would have derailed his career either way, but I think he would not be as roundly ridiculed if he hadn't been such an immature head case.
3. Eddie Griffin, F, Seton Hall
Another tragic story from this group of prospects, Griffin was once the latest in a long line of future stars to hail from the Philadelphia area. After leading his Roman Catholic HS team to the storied Philadelphia Catholic League title as a junior, Griffin went to Seton Hall and averaged a double-double every game, garnering TSN's national Freshman of the Year honors for his performance. If not for several troubling off-court incidents, there's a good chance Griffin would have been taken in the top 5 picks of the 2001 draft, perhaps even unseating Kwame Brown as #1 overall -- that's how good Griffin was, especially on defense. Unlike most young players, he had the ability to come in and make an immediate impact defensively at the NBA level, and although his offense lagged behind, scouts felt he had the combination of inside ability and midrange touch that would make for a good scorer eventually. The Rockets traded Brandon Armstrong, Jason Collins and Richard Jefferson on draft night '01 for the rights to Griffin, showing faith that Griffin had put his personal problems behind him and was ready to become a franchise cornerstone.
That faith would prove misplaced, because it turned out that Griffin had a disease -- alcoholism -- which eventually ruined his life. But early in his on-court career, his defense lived up to the advance billing after a shaky rookie year, and he quickly became one of the game's top shot-blockers, as well as a strong rebounder. Offensively, Griffin was extremely enamored with his jumper for no good reason, leading to some awful shooting numbers that made Miles look like Steve Kerr by comparison. Still, Griffin was just a 20-year-old kid in 2003, with plenty of reason to believe that he would be a good player once he added more bulk and started banging around the basket instead of hanging around outside and waiting for a kick-out.
Unfortunately, Griffin's drinking problem led the Rockets to release him in late 2003, just 150 games into his young career. He would end up missing the entire 2004 season, spending it instead in a rehab clinic. Signing with Minnesota in 2005, Griffin returned to the court essentially the same player he had been in Houston: a good defender, a fearsome shot-blocker, and an inefficient scorer who rarely pressured the defense. In 2006, Griffin's game inexplicably collapsed, but it turned out he had fallen off the wagon, was drinking heavily again, and was involved in an incredibly bizarre hit-and-run DUI incident which only served to illustrate how incredibly out of control his life had become. Griffin played only 13 ineffective games for the Wolves in 2007 before they waived him, tiring of his off-court baggage and finding that his production no longer justified his place on the roster.
Released in March 2007, Griffin was supposed to be working out that summer in an effort to sign with a team in Europe. Instead, in the middle of one mid-August night, a very drunk Griffin drove his car into a moving train, killing him instantly and burning his body beyond recognition. It was an unfortunate end to a life and a basketball career that had started with such potential, only to be derailed by substance abuse. Of all the prospects of the preps-to-pros/one-and-done era, including guys like Leon Smith, Griffin's story may be the most tragic, if not simply because it ended after just 25 years. There was no chance for redemption here; the book on Griffin simply closed, abruptly and permanently.
4. Gerald Wallace, F, Alabama
Unlike the three players ranked ahead of him, Wallace hasn't had a hint of scandal attached to his name -- no trouble with coaches, no dustups with teammates, no arrests, no playing time issues or contract disputes, nothing. No one questions Wallace's toughness or work ethic; while Miles was goofing off, Randolph was gaining weight, and Griffin was getting drunk, Wallace was busy improving his game. When he came into the league, he was like any number of other ultra-athletic wings who couldn't shoot, and languishing on the bench in Sacramento wasn't doing him any favors, either. But where so many would have seen their careers derailed by apathy, complacency, or an overinflated sense of entitlement, Wallace moved to Charlotte in 2004 and has quietly become one of the best players in all of basketball.
He was always a brilliant defender, almost from day one, and everyone knew he was a high-flyer after a memorable turn in the 2002 slam dunk contest, but what's striking about Wallace's career is the way he's transcended the "athlete" tag to become a truly great all-around player. He shot under 60% from the line in college and his first 3 NBA seasons, and he had zero 3-point range (even from the short NCAA distance, he made just 17.5% of his threes at Alabama), but now he makes almost 80% of his foul shots and is shooting an above-average 36% from deep, an impressive transformation that you almost never see at this level.
Not that Wallace has eschewed his hard-nosed, attacking style as he's gotten older. "G Force" still dunks with ferocity (as LeBron James learned earlier this season), to the point that he'll be participating in the dunk contest again, for the first time since the '02 season. Which other player has appeared in the contest 8 years apart? The answer: no one. Dominique Wilkins had been a part of the dunk contest in 1984 & 1990 (in addition to '85, '86, & '88), but Wallace will become the first player in NBA history to be in a contest 8 years after his first appearance. And we can't forget that Wallace is still a premier defender whose length, activity and hustle at that end make him a devastating matchup for any team.
Simply put, Wallace is a tremendous player, a hard worker, and would be a great asset to any team. As we'll see later, he isn't quite the best player from this 2000 class of prospects... but he's close, and it's a testament to his intangibles that he was able to become a steady, all-star caliber performer when the 3 players ranked ahead of him all saw their careers stall because of various off-court distractions.
5. Marcus Taylor, G, Michigan State
Taylor was a star high school guard at Waverly HS in Lansing, MI, and was expected to be the successor to Mateen Cleaves as the PG for the next great Spartans team. Unfortunately, he never really lived up to that billing, departing Tom Izzo's program on bad terms after just 2 college seasons. As a freshman, Taylor came off the bench behind Charlie Bell, contributing 22 MPG to MSU's Final Four squad but playing sparingly (and badly) in the NCAA Tournament. In his second year, Jason Richardson, Bell, and Randolph departed and highly-touted freshman Kelvin Torbert flopped, leaving Taylor to take the reins as Michigan State's leader and star player. The results weren't all bad -- Taylor shot poorly but averaged almost 20 P/40 while logging a team-best 34 MPG and leading the Big 10 in scoring and assists -- and Taylor's play sparked a depleted Spartans team to a last-second NCAA tournament berth before bowing out to NC State in the first round.
Fast forward to the summer of 2002. No one really thought Taylor was ready to make the leap to the pros after his sophomore season, but he decided to declare for the draft anyway, against the advice of Izzo and former State great Magic Johnson. One of those dreaded "shooting guard in a point guard's body" types, it was generally agreed that Taylor had playmaking potential but was inefficient in college and needed more development time if he was going to live up to the promise he had shown as Michigan's Mr. Basketball in 2000. Pundits warned that Taylor was a borderline first-round pick at best, but when the draft rolled around, even those predictions seemed generous: the 6'3" guard was taken 52nd overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and was cut in training camp before he could ever play an NBA game. Resurfacing over the years in Europe and a wide range of American minor leagues (including the D-League), Taylor has never gotten another call from an NBA team and probably never will, serving instead as an enduring cautionary tale about the perils of early-entry hubris.
The Rest of the Top 10:
6. Chris Duhon, G, Duke
7. DeShawn Stevenson, G, Utah Jazz
8. Jared Jeffries, F, Indiana
9. Andre Brown, F, DePaul
10. Mario Austin, C, Mississippi State
Best Player of the Class/Hidden Gem:
51. Dwyane Wade, G, Marquette
What's hard to believe is that, as relatively weak as the 2000 class of high school prospects was, the undisputed best player of the bunch was ranked 51st, behind the likes of Brian Morrison and Abdou Diame! Academic problems clouded D-Wade's early career, to the point that he was only recruited by 3 schools (Marquette, DePaul, Illinois St.) and he lost his eligibility during his freshman year at MU, but he worked hard in the classroom and earned his way back onto the court as a sophomore. From that point on, there proved to be very little that Wade wasn't capable of achieving as a player.
Wade was named an honorable mention All-American in 2002 and was 1st-team All-CUSA after leading Marquette to a 26-7 record and an NCAA Tourney bid. His legend really exploded in his 3rd and final year at Marquette -- he was named a 1st-team All-American, CUSA Player of the Year, CUSA Defensive Player of the Year, led MU to a 27-6 record & the CUSA regular-season title, and carried the Golden Eagles in a memorable Tournament run that included an epic triple-double (29 Pts/11 Reb/11 Ast) in an 83-69 upset over then-#1 Kentucky, propelling Marquette to its first Final Four berth since 1977. After the season, the most decorated player in MU history was drafted 5th overall in the 2003 NBA Draft.
We all know what happened after that... Wade went to the Heat, teamed with Shaq to make them contenders, and won an NBA title in 2006 after putting on one of the most dominating individual performances in Finals history. Seriously injured for most of 2008, Wade would bounce back by outshining LeBron James and Kobe Bryant as Team USA's best player at the Beijing Olympics (seriously, just look at the numbers from that tournament). And today, he's the only player (along with maybe Chris Paul) who has a prayer of unseating James as the Best Player in Basketball.
Not a bad resume for the 51st best prospect in the Class of 2000, wouldn't you say?
Another Hidden Gem:
87. Jameer Nelson, G, St. Joseph's