Dennis Rodman and Eddie Robinson are the only two U.S. NBA players who didn’t play high school basketball. Rodman had a growth spurt after high school that led him to the NBA. Robinson was good in high school but had too much trouble to play. Others like Steve Francis and Mark Eaton barely played in high school.
Introduction: NBA Players Who Didn’t Play High School Basketball
The question of how many NBA players didn’t play high school basketball is trickier than it sounds. If you want to be technically correct, there are many NBA players who never played high school ball – including several Hall of Famers!
Of course, technically correct is not the same thing you are probably thinking about. The vast majority of NBA players who didn’t play high school basketball did so because they grew up in another country.
Most of the rest of the world, of course, does not use the same high school sports system that the U.S. does. These players played for clubs or other organizations that are similar in some ways to our high school sports teams.
This list of best great foreign-born NBA players includes Hakeem Olajuwon and Dirk Nowitzki among many others. But you didn’t come here to read about them!
There are a couple of U.S. players who made the NBA despite not playing any high school basketball and two other players who come close to qualifying as NBA players who didn’t play high school basketball.
Dennis Rodman: The Best NBA Player Who Didn’t Play High School Basketball
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Dennis Rodman was one hell of a player who had one hell of a story. The Worm, as his Mom nicknamed him growing up, did not play in high school. His sisters did; they both went on to play in college.
But Dennis Rodman did not make the high school basketball team. He was a 5’6” high school freshman who only grew to 5’11” by the age of twenty.
But at age 20 he had a growth spurt that completely changed his life. Dennis the Menace grew from 5’11” to 6’7”. Around that time he started playing more basketball in pickup leagues around his hometown in Texas.
A friend of his family tipped off a junior college coach to Rodman’s potential and he got a shot to play. While Rodman flunked out of that school, he played some great ball and got noticed.
He was given a scholarship to play at SE Oklahoma St., an NAIA school. He dominated there somehow scoring 26 points and grabbing 16 rebounds per game over three years.
At the end of those three years, Rodman declared for the draft and got chosen in the 2nd round by the Detroit Pistons in the 1986 NBA Draft. The rest, as they say, is history.
Rodman was never able to score much in the NBA – I would love to see video of those 26 point games at SE Oklahoma St! But he could defend and rebound like almost no one else in the history of the league.
I have written entire posts about his defense here and his career as a whole here. In that latter post I concluded that Rodman was not quite at the level of the great two-way players of all time like Tim Duncan or Kevin Garnett.
But Rodman’s insane defense and rebounding put him at a level right below those types of all-time greats.
He is well deserving of his Hall of Fame induction. He is almost certainly the greatest American player who didn’t play high school basketball.
Eddie Robinson Made the NBA but Didn’t Play High School Basketball
The only other player from the U.S. that didn’t play high school basketball but somehow still made the NBA is much less well known than Dennis Rodman.
Eddie Robinson has a familiar name, since he shares it with one of the greatest football coaches in history, but he does not have a familiar game.
Despite the fact that he is around my age and played parts of five seasons in the NBA, I had never heard of this Eddie Robinson.
He did not have the career of Dennis Rodman, but he too has a pretty amazing story – as you would expect of someone who made the NBA despite not playing in high school.
He grew up in Flint, Michigan and played basketball his whole life. And he was good. Really good! But he was not on the straight and narrow growing up.
Coaches wanted him to play but Robinson was living a wild life as a teenager. He did play AAU and played in the streets but he was not doing the right things in life and could not play high school ball.
After high school, it seemed like Robinson had wasted his gifts but his AAU coach helped him to enroll at a community college in Texas. That exposure got him the chance to play at a division two junior college named Brown Mackie.
Robinson dominated at Brown Mackie and somehow thought he would get drafted so he declared for the NBA draft. He went undrafted and returned to school.
The school that took him after his NBA draft disappointment was the Division 2 University of Central Oklahoma – both he and Dennis Rodman solidified their shot at the NBA in Oklahoma.
Robinson dominated at UCO. One opposing coach, Montana State University at Billings coach Craig Carse said…
“Eddie Robinson is the Best Division II player I have ever seen”.Montana St. Coach Craig Carse
Robinson went on to sign a free agent deal with the Charlotte Hornets in 1999. Even for the NBA Robinson was an outlier athlete and he drew attention in his two years in Charlotte.
He scored only 7 points per game but that athleticism got the Chicago Bulls to offer him a 5 year $30 million deal. He did not progress much with the Bulls only getting up to 9 points per game and he was bought out of his deal after two years with the Bulls.
Robinson went on to kick around the D league and a Canadian League before retiring.
Steve Francis was the 2nd Pick in the NBA Draft But He Barely Played High School Basketball
The Franchise Steve Francis had a crazy childhood. His Dad served twenty years in prison for a bank robbery and his Mom died when he was fairly young too.
He grew up at times in an apartment that had as many as 18 other people living in it with him. It does not come as a surprise that he got into some trouble.
Francis started selling drugs at the age of ten. He went on to sell crack for years on the streets of Takoma Park, Maryland which is part of the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.
Francis dropped out of school eventually and got his GED. Before he dropped out, he attended six different high schools but because of his troubles he only ended up playing in two high school basketball games.
While you can say Steve Francis technically DID play high school basketball, he comes about as close as one can to not playing. Like Eddie Robinson, Francis’ AAU basketball experience saved him.
Francis got enough attention through AAU ball to get a scholarship to play junior college and he absolutely dominated there. He won two straight National Junior College National Championships before going on to play for Maryland in the ACC.
From there he became the 2nd pick in the 1999 NBA Draft by the Vancouver Grizzlies (remember them?) but was quickly traded to the Houston Rockets.
While he did not quite have the Hall of Fame career of Dennis Rodman, Stevie Franchise had a pretty good run in the league. He made 3 NBA All Star teams and scored 18 points per game in a 9 year career.
Mark Eaton Couldn’t Get Off the Bench in High School
NBA great Mark Eaton actually did play high school basketball but he was a bench player even as a senior! He grew from 6’3 to 6’11” in high school but could never get on the court.
He admits he was completely uncoordinated and the coaches did not know how to teach him to use his body effectively. He was on the team but basically never played.
After high school, he went on to automotive school and became a mechanic like his father. But his work as a mechanic changed his life.
A professor and assistant basketball coach at a junior college brought his Volvo in to be serviced and could not believe the size of the mechanic working on his car!
By then Eaton had grown to more than 7’ tall. The coach got him to enroll at Cypress Junior College and from there he got a scholarship at UCLA.
Of course, he never played for UCLA either, averaging 3 minutes per game his senior year! Despite that, the Utah Jazz took him in the 4th round of the 1982 Draft.
Eaton had a great 11 year career for the Jazz despite never really being able to score. The Jazz had Karl Malone and John Stockton for that.
Not only did the now 7’4” Eaton start for Utah, he became a dominant defender. He was a 5x All NBA Defensive Team selection who was a 2x Defensive Player of the Year.
He used his size to clog up the middle and was always in the way. Stockton was able to gamble for steals knowing he had Eaton behind him and that helped Stockton to become the all-time NBA steals leader.
Summary: NBA Players Who Didn’t Play High School Basketball
There are really only two players who grew up in the U.S. and didn’t play high school basketball but still made the NBA: Dennis Rodman and Eddie Robinson. Rodman had a growth spurt after high school that led him to the league while Robinson got his life straightened out. Steve Francis also had a lot of trouble in high school and that is why he only played two games. Mark Eaton was so uncoordinated in high school that he never got off the bench for his high school squad.
I have been a Boston sports fan for more than forty years. I write about games, players and seasons from the past.