Who are the best basketball prospects our NBA experts have ever seen?
Inspired by ESPN’s MLB team, we asked an ESPN panel about watching some of the league’s standout players before they made it big. The only rule: You had to see the prospect play in person before his first NBA game.
Steph Curry steals the show vs. Blake Griffin
It was a mid-November nonconference game between two ranked teams, the kind of early-season college basketball game that scratches for attention against football. But people were paying attention to Davidson’s visit to Oklahoma because the matchup featured two of the biggest collegiate hoops stars: the high-flying Blake Griffin and the nation’s leading scorer in Stephen Curry. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green made the trip down I-35 to sit courtside. A 10-year-old Trae Young was in the lower bowl with his dad.
Seeing Steph in person then was like seeing Steph in person now. There was a buzz to every shot he took, your eyes seemingly trained to follow him all over the floor as he weaved through defenders and around screens like he was a basketball shell game. Still, he was more novelty than sure thing, a gunning, undersized guard who left many draft experts and scouts skeptical. Curry was thin and baby-faced, his jersey sagging off him. Griffin, though, was built like he was ready to play on the block against Amar’e Stoudemire that night. It was the perfect matchup.
Griffin finished with 25 points on 11 shots and grabbed 21 boards. He was dominant, soaring for dunks and mean-mugging everybody. But Curry stole the show, dropping 44 points and sparking two different second-half runs that nearly brought the Wildcats back from a 21-point deficit. Every time the ball found Curry, the arena buzzed with a mixture of “oh no” and “oh boy.” The fear Curry instilled in opponents and road crowds already was real.
After the game, Durant and Westbrook hung around to shake Curry’s hand as he walked off the floor, the two NBA players acknowledging the young college star. It was kind of an awkward picture then, with a pre-fashion forward Westbrook and the fact that Curry was older than Durant and Westbrook; but it’s really an awkward one now, considering how things eventually played out between the three.
— Royce Young
Take a look back at how Kobe Bryant went from high school phenom at Lower Merion to a teenage sensation early in his NBA career.
Kobe’s stunning first impression
It is not too common that the first player a scout ever looks at turns out to be an all-time great.
That’s what happened to me in March 1996.
I was a basketball operations assistant, three months removed from shedding the intern tag, when then New Jersey Nets general manager Willis Reed summoned me into his office. He was reading through a scouting service the Nets subscribed to and asked me, “Have you heard of this 17-year-old high school player named Kobe Bryant?”
I answered no. Back then, there was no social media buzz, no easily accessible highlights — we didn’t even have a scouting database where his name would have shown up. Three months before his name would be selected by the Charlotte Hornets, Bryant was still unknown to some of basketball’s biggest power players.
One day later, Willis asked me to jump on a train to Philadelphia and catch one of Kobe’s state playoff games. It wasn’t uncommon back then to take an all-hands-on deck approach to scouting games. When I first started with the Nets, we had a small scouting staff that consisted of a director of player personnel and three regional scouts.
Watching Kobe, I was mesmerized. Here was a 6-foot-7 17-year-old who could do everything and play multiple positions. In addition to the mental toughness he displayed during his NBA career, Kobe had deep range, post-up moves resembling that of a big and an aggressiveness to attack the basket. Lower Merion High School wound up winning the game (Kobe scored 39 points) over Chester at the famed Palestra. Yes, there were weaknesses to his game, primarily handling the ball against small defenders, but I remember writing on a note card, “This kid could play in the NBA right now.”
Three months later, I served as Kobe’s draft host (a glorified name for driver) when he worked out for the Nets. Just as he had in the game I watched, Kobe destroyed the workout — this time against NBA players.
— Bobby Marks
On Dec. 12, 2002, LeBron James made his ESPN debut with his St. Vincent-St. Mary High team. James scored 31 points in a win.
LeBron comes up clutch
With Division I coaches, power agents and sneaker impresarios in the stands at Fairleigh Dickinson University for the marquee game of the 2001 ABCD Camp, I snagged a spot on the sideline and sat cross-legged near the half-court line. It was the first time I saw LeBron James play in person.
James was a rising junior facing off against rising senior Lenny Cooke, a New York City prospect who was the talk of the New Jersey camp. James made everyone realize who the top prospect was that day.
Cooke was roughly the same size as James, but there was a fluidity to LeBron’s movement that proved his command of the game was on another level. LeBron’s natural ability as a defender was apparent, corralling Cooke whenever he tried to drive. I distinctly remember James swatting away a Cooke pull-up jumper and the gym going nuts.
Still, Cooke had his team up by one in the game’s waning seconds when LeBron dribbled up the length of the court and made a 3-point running jump shot at the buzzer to win it. I often thought back to that moment when he was roundly criticized in the early stages of his NBA career for passing to an open teammate instead of taking a potential winning shot — even if he was double- or triple-teamed — insinuating that he was scared of the moment.
To me, that moment at ABCD was when he first started to go from being known as just another talented recruit to a guy whose name would be worth remembering. He built his reputation on the type of shot that pundits said he was afraid to take.
— Dave McMenamin
The graceful play of Patrick Ewing
His legs went on forever.
That’s what I remember when I saw Patrick Aloysius Ewing for the first time. Ewing was a towering teenager from Kingston, Jamaica, whose family had moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, when he was 12. His game of choice had been cricket, but when he picked up a basketball, his life was forever altered.
He was the talk of the city — Boston and Cambridge — so in 1980, I figured I’d check him out for myself. As I looked up, up, up at those graceful, long legs, finally locating a waist nearly up to his shoulders, he ripped a rebound, dutifully relayed it to his Cambridge Rindge & Latin point guard, then dropped his head and galloped down the floor.
Ewing was relatively new to the game, but there was already a fluidity to him that belied his size and strength. But what shocked me most was that when he was swarmed by one, two, three defenders, he didn’t panic. He simply waited, absorbed contact — there was a lot of contact — then dished the ball to his open teammate. He could have dunked it, but instead he made an unselfish basketball play.
Another thing I noticed about No. 32 in my program: He rarely engaged with the raucous crowd, thundering in anticipation of what he’d do next. He kept his head low, like someone who wasn’t quite comfortable in his skin yet.
I don’t remember who Patrick Ewing played that night or how many points he had. I wasn’t yet a journalist, just a college student and basketball fan. I later read that rival fans rocked his team bus and hurled racial taunts. Legend has it that when Ewing announced at his Boston news conference that he’d be attending Georgetown instead of Boston College or Boston University, half the room stood up and walked out.
Of course they did. They knew, as I did, that they had just lost out on a future Hall of Famer.
— Jackie MacMullan
On Jan. 31, 2007, Texas freshman Kevin Durant dominated Texas Tech to the tune of a 37 points and 23 rebounds in a 76-64 win.
KD takes over against Texas Tech
Kevin Durant didn’t really live up to the hype the first time I saw him play.
It was his last year of high school when Durant’s Montrose Christian team came from Maryland to Dallas to face Darrell Arthur’s South Oak Cliff squad in a matchup of McDonald’s All Americans. They played in front of a packed house at the brand-new, 7,500-seat Ellis Davis Field House, a crowd that blended the passionate South Dallas hoops community and University of Texas fans eager to get a glimpse of the Longhorns’ prized recruit. Durant had a decent game, scoring 18 points despite an off night from 3-point range. But the best player on the floor in Montrose’s win was his teammate and fellow future first-round pick Greivis Vasquez.
Durant certainly didn’t disappoint when I covered another one of his games a year later. By that time, the discussion about whether Durant or Greg Oden should be the first pick in the NBA draft was already well underway. Durant boosted his case with a 37-point, 23-rebound performance for Texas in a road win over Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech team.
Durant outscored the Red Raiders in the second half by himself, 24-22, displaying the most versatile offensive game I’d ever seen by a teenager that tall.
“He’s really good,” Knight said that night. “The guy is 6-9, he is mobile, he’s quick, he’s fast. I mean, what more does he have to do? There’s no secret thing that he drinks before the game.”
— Tim MacMahon
Check out Luka Doncic’s highlights from the European league that made him a top prospect in the 2018 NBA draft.
A 19-year-old Luka Doncic made his way onto the floor about an hour before tipoff. The rickety, 8,000-seat Pionir Hall was tightly packed on this Friday night in Belgrade, Serbia, with fans of all ages marveling at Doncic as he casually went through his pregame warm-up.
Having already played almost 1,500 minutes between EuroBasket, the EuroLeague and the Spanish ACB season, Doncic missed a few weeks that March with a hamstring injury and was in just his third game back. With a little extra pep in his step, Doncic accounted for the game’s first eight points — a Dirk Nowitzki-style fallaway in the post, a step-back 3 and transition deliveries to open teammates.
Through three quarters, he looked like the unquestioned No. 1 pick in the draft. As the fourth quarter hit, however, Red Star pressured him relentlessly. He coughed it up twice in the backcourt for his sixth and seventh turnovers and was held scoreless. Real Madrid had the ball slide out of bounds with the game knotted at 79 with 5.9 seconds left.
Coach Pablo Laso handed the ball to the teenager. After two dribbles to get into his move, Doncic sent defender Ognjen Dobric to the floor with a pull-back crossover, calmly cashing an NBA-range game-winning 3 with 0.9 seconds on the clock, giving his version of a Michael Jordan shrug to the bench on his way downcourt. The media member next to me shrieked with joy, and even Red Star fans cheered for the teenage prodigy.
Following the game, Doncic was paraded around the arena, taking selfies with fans and answering questions from the media in Serbian, Spanish and Slovenian, all before eventually being escorted onto the team bus in true superstar fashion.
As Michigan, Villanova, Kansas and Loyola-Chicago prepared for the Final Four the following day in San Antonio, Doncic was already a star in the second-best league in the world, showing the clutch gene in a hostile environment.
Luka Magic was real.
— Mike Schmitz
I’ve had a chance to see some of the NBA’s top players at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland, Oregon, over the past decade, including Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons and Karl-Anthony Towns. But I’m not sure anyone impressed me more over the course of the week than Michael Porter Jr. in 2017, as he dominated the annual USA Basketball scrimmage against a team of local prep players affectionately known as the Portland Generals. Porter then scored a game-high 19 points in a Hoop Summit win over a team featuring (among others) RJ Barrett and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
I was primed to believe in Porter, who spent his senior year of high school in my native Seattle after his father took a job as an assistant coach at the University of Washington under Lorenzo Romar (Porter’s godfather). Before I’d seen him play for the first time in Seattle, I’d heard longtime NBA guard Jamal Crawford compare Porter to Kevin Durant after playing against him in summer pickup games.
Now that Porter is finally back on the court after losing nearly two full seasons to back injuries that limited him to three games at Missouri and a redshirt campaign with the Denver Nuggets, we’re getting regular glimpses of the talent he showed as a teenager. At 6-foot-10, like Durant, he has the ability to rise over any defender and knock down contested shots one-on-one.
The rest of Porter’s game, his head coach Michael Malone would assuredly agree, is still filling out. But if you take the same size and skill that has enabled Porter to make 54% of his 2s and 42% of his 3s this season and put it up against other players his own age, you can understand why he was the No. 1 prospect in his class before injury struck.
— Kevin Pelton