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Making the jump: Big hits, misses among NBA preps-to-pros club

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Jazz players Al Jefferson and C.J. Miles belong to an elite club in the NBA.

Out of the 400-plus NBA players, just 28 belong to the club, which includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. Amare Stoudemire, Andrew Bynum and Monta Ellis also belong to the club, as do average players such as Travis Outlaw, Dorrell Wright and Amir Johnson.

It's a club that is shrinking year by year and could be extinct within another decade or so unless the NBA decides to change its rules.

What is it?

It's the preps-to-pros club — players who have gone directly from high school to the NBA without stopping at college.

From 1995 to 2005, the NBA allowed players to go directly from high school to the league. Then, concerned about an increasing number of high school players declaring for the draft, including some who were never even drafted, the league changed the rule, saying players must be 19 or a year removed from high school to enter the draft.

Right now, the Jazz have 7.14 percent of those 28 NBA players who came out of high school in Jefferson and Miles. New York has the most high school-to-NBA players with three on its roster, while six other teams besides the Jazz have two. Eleven teams have none.

Ask Jefferson and Miles and they'll both tell you they are happy with their decisions to come out early.

"No regrets," said Jefferson, who came out of the small town of Prentiss, Mississippi in 2004 and was drafted No. 15 by the Boston Celtics.

Jefferson said from the time he was in junior high school, he had plans to go straight to the NBA.

"It was something I said I was going to do when I was in the seventh grade and nobody believed me," said Jefferson. "I said I was going to go pro out of high school. And that's what I did."

Jefferson still went through the college recruiting process and was committed to go to Arkansas before declaring for the draft.

"I was going to the league," said Jefferson, "but I had a backup plan."

He was drafted in the first round in 2004 when eight high school players were drafted and Dwight Howard went No. 1. Three high schoolers who haven't had the same measure of success as Jefferson were taken ahead of him — Shaun Livingston at No. 4, Robert Swift at No. 12 and Sebastian Telfair at No. 13.

Miles was drafted early in the second round by the Jazz the following year — No. 34 overall — out of Skyline High School in Dallas. That was the year nine high school players were taken, topped by Martell Webster by Portland at No. 6. It was also the final year that the NBA allowed high school players to be drafted.

Miles only played in 23 games his rookie season and was shuttled back and forth to the D-League, but by his fourth year, he was starting all 72 games he played in and averaged 9.1 points. His best year came last season when he averaged 12.8 ppg.

Like Jefferson, Miles says he doesn't have any regrets about leaving early, but adds "Of course, when I got here, I thought about 'what if?"'

Miles had been recruited by the likes of North Carolina, Kansas, Georgia Tech and Illinois, but chose the University of Texas in his home state. He had already signed a letter of intent when he decided to take the big step to turn pro.

And what if he'd decided to go to college? He could have teamed with a guy named Kevin Durrant, who started along with three other freshmen when Miles would have been a sophomore. Who knows, maybe that team would have won an NCAA title.

Miles strongly considered college, but after working out for several NBA teams, some more than once, and getting good feedback, he made the big decision to go pro.

"I thought I was going to get drafted, but I didn't decide until the day of the deadline" he said.

Jefferson has had a better career than Miles, starting more than 80 percent of his games and averaging 16 points and 8.8 rebounds in his eight years.

"I get around some of these college guys and say, 'You go to college to reach this level. So if you can skip it to get to this level, then why not?"'

Of all the players who have been drafted out of high school, Miles is one of a handful still with his original team. Most, like Jefferson, have been traded or signed as free agents with other teams. Former No. 1 draft pick Kwame Brown is on his seventh team.

"Only a few of the guys that came out with me are still with their same teams," said Miles. "I've had the privilege of playing on good teams. Being here six years and playing for the coaches I've had, has made a big difference."

As a second-rounder, who had to play in the D-League early on, Miles said hard work is what has kept him in the NBA.

"The biggest thing for me was the transition you had to make and to keep working," he said. "A lot of guys get discouraged and stop working and it's downhill from there."

One thing folks forget about guys like Jefferson and Miles is how young they are, despite being in the NBA for so many years. For a little perspective, consider that the seven-year veteran Miles just barely turned 25 and is less than two years older than Jimmer Fredette, who is in his rookie season in the NBA.

"I feel young — I don't have any reason to feel old," Miles said with a laugh.

Because the NBA is almost certain to never allow high school players to be drafted, Jefferson and Miles will always be part of an elite club.

"I never thought about it like that, but there are only a few who have done it," said Jefferson. "And the way it's looking, it will never be done again. Some of the best players in the game, the superstars, came straight out of high school. So that puts us in an elite group."

High School Draftees

Top 5 best

1. Kobe Bryant — He's done it all since being taken No. 13 in the 1996 draft and being traded from Charlotte to Los Angeles. In his 15 years with the Lakers, he has won five NBA titles and an MVP award, with nine first-team all-NBA selections and two scoring titles.

2. LeBron James — No titles yet, but he has won two MVP awards, a scoring title and has been named first-team all-NBA five times since being the No. 1 draft choice in 2003.

3. Kevin Garnett — He started the modern exodus of high school players to the NBA in 1995, going to Minnesota at No. 5. He won an MVP award in 2004 and won an NBA title with Boston in 2008.

4. Dwight Howard — He was the No. 1 draftee in 2004 and has been a first-team all-NBA four times and defensive player of the year three times for Orlando.

5. Tracy McGrady — He was all-NBA first team twice and a two-time scoring leader and played in seven all-star games. He was drafted No. 9 by Toronto and has played for five teams since.

Top 5 busts

1. Kwame Brown — Even though he has survived 11 years in the league, Brown has to be considered the biggest bust of the high school draftees. He was picked No. 1 out of Georgia by the Washington Wizards in 2001 and has since played for six more teams with a career average of 6.8 ppg.

2. Korleone Young — Despite being a blue-chip recruit out of the Hargave (Va.) Military Academy, he surprised even his high school coaches by declaring for the draft. He fell to the second round selected No. 40 by Detroit, played just three games before spending time on the injured reserve list and never played in the NBA again.

3. Jonathan Bender — Drafted No. 5 out of Picayune, Mississippi in the 1999 Draft, the 7-foot center played seven seasons with Indiana and one with New York, averaging a mere 4.7 points and 2.1 rebounds.

4. Leon Smith — In 1999, he was drafted by San Antonio with the 29th pick and immediately traded to Dallas. However, he suffered from psychological problems and never played a game for the Mavericks. A couple of years later Atlanta signed him and he played just 14 games and played one game for Seattle two years later.

5. Ndudi Ebi — Born in London, raised in Nigeria and a high school player in Texas, Ebi was headed to the University of Arizona before declaring for the NBA Draft. Minnesota chose him with the 26th pick in 2003, but he played in just 19 games before being cut.