Top 10 youngest players in NBA history

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Ryan Murphy

April 13th, 2021

They say that age is just a number, and that's especially true in the NBA, where 18-year-old phenoms regularly mixed it up with cagey old veterans during the league's first five decades.

That eventually changed in 2005, when the NBA raised its age of eligibility to 19 as part of a new collective bargaining agreement. The new rule barred players from leaping to the pros directly from high school, and ushered in the one-and-done era of college hoops.

You won't find many teens on rosters these days, but they were an important fixture in the not so distant past. Join us now as we look back at the 10 youngest players in NBA history, all of whom slipped in before the league changed its regulations. Our list includes Hall of Famers, perennial All-Stars, and game-changing NBA champions.

10. C.J. Miles

Position: Small forward/shooting guard
Age during first game: 18 years, 241 days
Teams: Utah Jazz, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, Toronto Raptors, Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards
Years active: 2006-2020

It’s easy to understand why the Jazz nabbed C.J. Miles in the 2005 NBA Draft. After all, the rugged 6’6” gunner averaged 23.5 points, 10.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists as a high school senior, and was named the All-Dallas Area Player of the Year. Unfortunately he never came close to replicating those numbers again in the pros. Miles averaged double-figures in scoring just six times over the next 15 years, and failed to become the multi-dimensional scorer that many scouts projected.

9. Andris Biedrins

Position: Center
Age during first game: 18 years, 217 days
Teams: Golden State Warriors, Utah Jazz
Years active: 2005-2014

Biedrins likely couldn’t hack it in today’s NBA, where every 7-footer is expected to be a light-out shooter, but he enjoyed a solid 10-year career prior to the beginning of the league’s space and pace era. The Latvian big man led the NBA in field goal percentage in 2007-08, and averaged 9.2 rebounds per game from 2007-11.

8. Yaroslav Korolev

Position: Small forward
Age during first game: 18 years, 181 days
Team: Los Angeles Clippers
Years active: 2006-2007

The Clippers made plenty of mistakes early in the Millennium, but one of their biggest was selecting Yaroslav Korolev with the 12th pick of the 2005 NBA Draft. The Russian forward appeared in just 34 games over two years and was unceremoniously waived prior to the start of the 2007-08 season. Korolev later returned to Europe, but failed to make his mark while collecting paychecks with seven different clubs.

7. Tracy McGrady

Position: Shooting guard/small forward
Age during first game: 18 years, 160 days
Teams: Toronto Raptors, Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks
Years active: 1998-2012

Remember what you were doing when you were 21? Tracy McGrady was averaging 26.8 points per game for the Orlando Magic. Four years after entering the league, the sleepy-eyed Florida native had already established himself as one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers.

"T-Mac" never won an NBA championship, but he captured two scoring titles and was named to seven All-Star games and seven All-NBA teams during his impressive 15-year career.

6. Bill Willoughby

Position: Small forward
Age during first game: 18 years, 156 days
Teams: Atlanta Hawks, Buffalo Braves, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, New Jersey Nets
Years active: 1976-1984

The 19th pick in the 1975 NBA Draft, the well-traveled Willoughby played for six different franchises before calling it quits at age 26. His decision to skip college is something of a cautionary tale, and he now works with high school kids on behalf of the NBA to encourage them to pursue a post secondary education.

5. Stan Brown

Position: Small forward
Age during first game: 18 years, 139 days
Team: Philadelphia Warriors
Years active: 1947-1952

Haven’t heard of Stan Brown before? You’re not alone. The Philly native was signed by his hometown Warriors in 1947, but only appeared in 34 games before flaming out. He hung up his Chuck Taylors at the ripe old age of 22, and spent the next 30 years driving a delivery truck.

4. Darko Milicic

Position: Center/power forward
Age during first game: 18 years, 133 days
Teams: Detroit Pistons, Orlando Magic, Memphis Grizzlies, New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics
Years active: 2014-2013

Darko Milicic will forever be remembered as the player the Pistons took ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade in the 2003 NBA Draft. That’s a tough legacy, and the pressure of matching those players’ feats wore heavily on the 7’0” Serbian, who never quite seemed comfortable in his own skin.

Milicic eventually became a serviceable back-up center, but that’s a far cry from what the Pistons envisioned when they selected him second overall.

3. Kobe Bryant

Position: Shooting guard
Age during first game: 18 years, 72 days
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Years active: 1997-2016

Just how good was Kobe Bryant at 18? The Philly native reportedly destroyed eight-time All-Defensive Team member Michael Cooper at his Lakers pre-draft session, prompting Jerry West to call it the greatest workout he had ever seen.

The precocious Bryant would go on to become the youngest starter in NBA history, the youngest Slam Dunk champion in NBA history, the youngest All-Star Game starter in NBA history, and the youngest player to win three NBA championships.

2. Jermaine O’Neal

Position: Center
Age during first game: 18 years, 53 days
Teams: Portland Trail Blazers, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Golden State Warriors
Years active: 1997-2014

One of the issues with drafting high schoolers is they sometimes require extra seasoning. That was certainly the case with Jermaine O’Neal, who averaged just 3.9 points per game during his first four years in Portland. The Trail Blazers gave up on the then-22-year-old pivot and shipped him to Indiana, where he became a six-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA selection. O’Neal’s finest season came in 2004-05, when the Columbia native averaged 24.3 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game.

1. Andrew Bynum

Position: Center
Age during first game: 18 years, 6 days
Teams: Los Angeles Lakers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers
Years active: 2006-2014

The Lakers might be stuck on 15 NBA championships were it not for Andrew Bynum. The beefy 7-footer was a key member of L.A.’s back-to-back title-winning teams in 2009 and 2010, and was a dependable big-bodied screen-setter with a penchant for crashing the boards.

Bynum became an All-Star in 2012, but was hampered by knee injuries for the remainder of his career, and retired in 2014 after brief stints with the Cavaliers and Pacers.