10 youngest players in NBA history

When Victor Wembanyama was selected #1 overall in the 2023 NBA draft, he already had success in the French league at the age of 19. His skills and experience make it less surprising that the San Antonio Spurs player is already a star in his first year. His debut performance on the court was so impressive that he was named NBA’s Rookie of the Year in May. However, other young, seemingly promising draft picks have not always fared as well.

Before 2006, players could forgo college and be drafted straight out of high school. These young athletes were critiqued more on raw talent than experience, and some of them turned out to be generational stars like Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but more were unsuccessful in their transition to pro sports. Because of this, the league altered its eligibility rules to state that players must be at least 19 or a year removed from their high school graduation class the year they’re drafted.

Though the days of pros straight out of high school are over, ATS.io compiled a ranking of the youngest players in NBA history using Stathead data. The players’ ages when they made their NBA debut were used to determine the ranking.

Read on to learn which youngsters thrived, which flopped, and which player made his NBA debut just six days after turning 18.

Shannon Brown of the Los Angeles Lakers looks to steal the ball from C.J. Miles of the Utah Jazz.
Lisa Blumenfeld // Getty Images

#10. C.J. Miles

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 241 days
– Team: Utah Jazz

Before the 2005 draft, C.J. Miles had already signed on to the University of Texas basketball team, his father declaring if C.J. wasn’t drafted in the first round, his son would opt to play college ball. When the Utah Jazz picked him 34th (four picks into the second round), the shooting guard decided he’d forgo college if the franchise guaranteed him a contract (something only first-round picks generally receive). They obliged and signed Miles to a two-year deal. After signing with the Jazz, the Skyline High star became the youngest player in franchise history; however, the move didn’t appear to pan out.

During his first season, Miles was assigned to the D-League Albuquerque Thunderbirds, with the Jazz saying he needed more experience. The following season, he played 21 games in the NBA before being reassigned to the D-League team the Idaho Stampede. Although he didn’t live up to the hype of his high school career, Miles ended up playing in the league until 2022 for numerous teams. He last played for the G League team Ignite in 2022.

Andris Biedriņš at the warriors headquarters in Oakland.
Christina Koci Hernandez // Getty Images

#9. Andris Biedriņš

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 217 days
– Team: Golden State Warriors

Andris Biedriņš was picked 11th overall by the Golden State Warriors in the 2004 draft. The Latvian center didn’t wow during his first season in the Bay Area—he played 30 games and averaged 3.6 points and 3.9 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game. But those numbers grew, and by the 2007-08 season, he was averaging 10.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.

In 2007, Biedriņš was an integral part of the “We Believe” team that upset the #1 seeded Dallas Mavericks as an #8 seed in the first round of the playoffs before losing to the Utah Jazz in the 2007 NBA Western Conference semifinals.

During their improbable playoff run, the big man played 11 games and averaged 6.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. Biedriņš ended up playing with the Warriors until 2013. He was traded to the Jazz in the latter part of the 2013-14 season and played six games with them before retiring.

Yaroslav Korolev poses for his post draft portrait shoot.
Noah Graham // Getty Images

#8. Yaroslav Korolev

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 181 days
– Team: Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers used their #12 pick on Yaroslav Korolev in the 2005 draft, but the perplexing thing is he hardly played in the NBA. Despite only being 18 when he was drafted, the forward had already been playing professional basketball in his native Russia and was on the CSKA Moscow (the top club in Russia) roster in 2004-05. However, he played for the junior team.

Korolev played only 127 minutes in his rookie year and even fewer in his second year. He signed a two-year guaranteed contract as a first-round pick but hardly played. He was waived before the start of the 2007-08 season.

Although he never lived up to his draft status, Korolev did play in the D-League in 2009-10, then the Euroleague. He officially retired in 2016.

Tracy McGrady of the Toronto Raptors speaks with a reporter during the NBA Draft.
Craig Jones // Getty Images

#7. Tracy McGrady

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 160 days
– Team: Toronto Raptors

Tracy McGrady was the 9th overall pick in the 1997 draft and came straight out of North Carolina’s Mount Zion Christian Academy. The Toronto Raptors drafted the Floridian and, unfortunately, had trouble adjusting not only to the NBA but the Canadian climate as well. As a result, he only played 53 games in the three years he was in Toronto.

Although his time as a Raptor was lackluster, McGrady had a fruitful 16-year career. When he announced his retirement in 2013, the guard had a career average stat line of 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists. He played with the Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, and San Antonio Spurs. He also made seven All-Star teams between 2001 and 2008 during his time with the Magic and Rockets.

NBA player Bill Willoughby at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Keith Torrie // Getty Images

#6. Bill Willoughby

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 156 days
– Team: Atlanta Hawks

When Bill Willoughby was drafted 19th in 1975, he was only the third player to skip college and go straight to the NBA. The forward was a phenom in high school, but unfortunately, his skill didn’t translate well at the pro level. As a result, he was traded often and played for six different teams during his eight-year career.

Willoughby later said he regretted foregoing college to go pro and ended up receiving his degree at age 44 (the NBA paid for his schooling). Despite a lackluster career, the New Jerseyan does have a claim to fame: With a 47-inch vertical leap, he was one of the only players who could block Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famous skyhook.

Unspecified 1950's NBA game between Philadelphia and Baltimore.
H. Armstrong Roberts // Getty Images

#5. Stan Brown

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 139 days
– Team: Philadelphia Warriors

Stan Brown was the first basketball player in history to go straight from high school to the pros. In fact, he was still in high school when his career began as a player on the American Basketball League’s Philadelphia Sphas in 1946. The following year, he joined the Philadelphia Warriors of the Basketball Association of America (later rebranded as the NBA in 1949).

Brown played 19 games as a Warrior in the 1947-48 season and then returned in the 1951-52 season to play 15 more games. During his 34 games in the BAA/NBA, the forward averaged 3.1 points and 1.1 rebounds per game in 9.4 minutes per game.

Darko Miličić of the Orlando Magic and Chris Webber of the Detroit Pistons battle for position.
Doug Benc // Getty Images

#4. Darko Miličić

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 133 days
– Team: Detroit Pistons

Darko Miličić was picked second overall in the 2003 draft, behind LeBron James. Unfortunately for the Serbia native, the Detroit Pistons were already an elite team, so he didn’t get much playing time during his rookie season. As a result, the big man wasn’t allotted the experience to grow his game and is widely considered an NBA bust. However, Miličić did win a championship with the Pistons his rookie year and still holds the distinction of being the youngest player to appear in an NBA finals game and the youngest player to win a title.

Despite not living up to his potential, Miličić played in the NBA for 10 years. He bounced around from five different teams for the final seven years of his career.

Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Kobe Bryant.
Steve Grayson // Getty Images

#3. Kobe Bryant

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 72 days
– Team: Los Angeles Lakers

Because Kobe Bryant played with the Los Angeles Lakers for the entirety of his 20-season career, it’s easy to forget the Charlotte Hornets technically drafted him with the 13th pick in the 1996 draft. (He was traded two weeks later for Vlade Divac.)

It was clear Bryant was going to be a star from the get-go. The guard made his NBA debut on Nov. 3, 1996, against the Minnesota Timberwolves; on Jan. 28, 1997, he became the youngest player to start an NBA game. By his second season, Bryant was already an All-Star.

Bryant went on to be an All-Star 18 times during his two decades in the league. He also won five championships and countless other accolades.

Jermaine O'Neal #7 of the Indiana Pacers adjusts his headband.
Jonathan Ferrey // Getty Images

#2. Jermaine O’Neal

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 53 days
– Team: Portland Trail Blazers

The 1996 draft was a good one for talented teenagers. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Jermaine O’Neal 17th overall. The big man made his NBA debut on Dec. 5, 1996, against the Denver Nuggets and held the title of youngest player to play in an NBA game for nearly a decade.

O’Neal was traded to the Indiana Pacers after four years in Portland. His star rose with the Pacers. During eight seasons in Indiana, the young player was named an All-Star six times and an All-NBA selection three times. O’Neal played for five more teams before retiring in 2014 and averaged 13.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game during his 18-year career.

Andrew Bynum of the Los Angeles Lakers and Zaza Pachulia of the Atlanta Hawks battle for position.
Lisa Blumenfeld // Getty Images

#1. Andrew Bynum

– NBA debut age: 18 years, 6 days
– Team: Los Angeles Lakers

Andrew Bynum was selected 10th overall by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2005 draft and made his NBA debut on Nov. 2, 2005, against the Denver Nuggets at just 18 years and six days old. The center’s career took a few years to get established, but he ended up playing with the Lakers until 2012, the same year he was named an All-Star. During that time, Bynum won championships in 2009 and 2010.

The big man split the 2013-14 season between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers. Unfortunately, a knee injury sustained that season ended his career prematurely at the age of 26. Bynum averaged 11.5 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game during his career.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Robert Wickwire. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

This story originally appeared on ATS.io and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.