Skip to main content

While getting drafted into the NBA isn’t easy, the logistics of the NBA draft process seem rather simple. You prove your ability, whether that’s in college or another league, enter your name into the metaphorical pot, and wait for someone to acquire your services. In reality, though, there are plenty of rules that govern who can — and cannot — enter the Association.

Chief among those, for better or worse, is a regulation that states players have to be both at least 19 years old and at least a year removed from high school. While that rule has become part of the basketball landscape, that wasn’t always the case. There was a time when players could jump straight from high school into the Association.

And while Amir Johnson might not be a household name, he does hold a place in NBA draft history. Barring a potential change, he was the last player to do just that.

Amir Johnson jumped from high school to the pros but never really found an NBA footing

Amir Johnson reacts during the 2018 NBA postseason.
Amir Johnson never became a star, but he spent 14 seasons in the NBA. | Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

When you think of high school players who stepped directly into the Association, it’s easy to remember phenomenal talents like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James. With all due respect to Amir Johnson, he never reached the same heights as those legendary names.

The big man played his high school ball in California and, after a slow start to his career, earned the state’s Mr. Basketball title and was named a McDonald’s All-American. He committed his NCAA future to Louisville but ultimately decided to call an audible; he was jumping straight to the pros.

Johnson entered the 2005 NBA draft, and while he didn’t hear his name called until the 56th pick, the teenager had done it. He joined the Detroit Pistons, becoming the last player in NBA history to enter the league directly from high school.

Success didn’t come quickly or easily, though. Johnson spent a portion of his time in what was then called the D League, only appearing in three games as a rookie and eight games as an NBA sophomore. Even when he became a regular in the Pistons’ rotation, the big man wasn’t exactly stuffing the score sheet; he averaged 3.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per outing across four seasons in Detroit.

In 2009, Johnson joined the Toronto Raptors. He played the best basketball of his professional career in Canada, averaging 8.8 points and 6.3 rebounds across six seasons north of the border. He then joined the Boston Celtics and, after two years in Beantown, joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 2017.

While it’s easy to write the big man off as a failure since he never developed into an NBA star, he did carve out a respectable niche for himself. Johnson’s last appearance in the Association came during the 2018-19 campaign, meaning he spent 14 seasons at basketball’s highest level. In total, the Californian played 870 games, averaging 7.0 points and 5.4 boards per contest.

The big man became a mentor in the G-League and could have coaching in his future

While Johnson’s time in the Association ended in 2019, the curtain didn’t come down on his professional career. The big man joined the G League Unite, where he stepped into a role as a valuable mentor for the next generation of NBA prospects.

“Younger players, Johnson found, sought him out with questions. He surprised himself with how easily he had the answers at his disposal, like how to handle family obligations, how to establish routines and how to dress,” Jonathan Abrams explained in a 2022 New York Times piece.

That experience has the NBA veteran considering another way to remain connected to basketball.

“Johnson always figured he could be a player development coach if he wanted to. He now finds himself pulled to the strategy behind the game, envisioning a second career in coaching,” Abrams added before providing a quote from the man himself.

“That passion when I was young and hungry to keep learning, it’s kind of leaning toward the coaching part,” Johnson explained.

And while success in the coaching ranks isn’t guaranteed, it’s easy to see how someone with the big man’s experience would be welcome on a team’s bench.

Since chatter has quieted regarding the one-and-done rule, Johnson could remain in the record books for some time

There was a time when it seemed like the NBA’s one-and-done rule was destined for the scrap heap. These days, though, that chatter has cooled. Without knowing what’s exactly being said behind the scenes, it’s logical to assume that, given alternative pathways to the pros, like the G League Ignite, and the ability for NCAA athletes to earn money through name, image, and likeness (NIL) deals, there’s less pressure to change the college-to-NBA pipeline.

Assuming that rule remains active, Amir Johnson will retain his place in basketball history. Being the last player to enter the NBA directly from high school, however, isn’t the entirety of his story. And, if he takes the plunge into coaching, there are still entire chapters yet to be written.


Who Is the Lowest NBA Draft Pick to Win NBA Finals MVP?