Class of 2002 a cautionary tale for today's All-Americans

by | Senior Writer

Amar'e and Carmelo first played together at Madison Square Garden as high schoolers. (Getty Images)  
Amar'e and Carmelo first played together at Madison Square Garden as high schoolers. (Getty Images)  

It was tabbed as one of the most powerful groups in years, stacked with just about everything you could ask for -- talented big men, quality point guards, big-time shooters and athletic wings.

The McDonald's All-American Class of 2002.

However, it's a decade later and only a handful could be found occupying NBA rosters last season.

Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton, Chris Bosh and J.J. Redick.

Yes, that's it.

"Are you serious?" Redick said when informed there were only five NBA guys. "That is nuts. No way."

"Those numbers are alarming," added former UNC star Sean May, who spent last year in Turkey. "We had one of the best high school classes ever."

It serves as a cautionary tale to the youth of today, those who sit high atop the rankings and are coddled by coaches, shoe company executives as well as agents and runners.

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The numbers are irrelevant.

"They don't mean a thing," said former Duke forward Shavlik Randolph, who once held the No. 1 spot in the class early in his Broughton High (N.C.) days. "If you're ranked high, that means there's a guy that isn't ranked who's probably outworking you."

"It's a curse," admitted Evan Burns, a top-10 player who spent one season at San Diego State after failing to qualify to play at UCLA.

Sure, there are some of the 24 who played at Madison Square Garden on April 5, 2002, who could be in the league right now if not for bad luck. Jason Fraser endured seven surgeries in his Villanova career, Paul Davis has battled through a torn ACL and back issues and May spent last season in Turkey, largely because of knee issues that have bothered him since he entered the NBA.

There are others that were just flat overrated -- and shouldn't have been ranked anywhere near McDonald's All-American status. Guys like Elijah Ingram, Sean Dockery, Travis Garrison and Michael Thompson.

And there are some who admittedly bought into the hype.

"That was my problem," said Burns, an elite player coming out of Fairfax High in California who is now a production assistant in Los Angeles. "I don't want to admit it went to my head, but I know it did."

"You can lose sight of a lot of things and start to buy into how great you are," added Bracey Wright, who was ranked about 50 spots higher than high school teammate Deron Williams yet has played 425 fewer NBA games. "Sometimes your mind isn't in the right place and you can lose focus."

"People are telling you that the NBA is a given coming out of high school," added Garrison, the ex-Maryland forward who played in the Ukraine last year. "So you start to believe it. I'm sure other guys felt the same way."

Wright admitted it affected him, especially when he arrived at Indiana.

"I think I was still wrapped up in the persona of who everyone said I was," Wright added. "The rankings led me to not work as hard and not be as hungry as I was."

Rashad McCants, mulling playing overseas this season, says NBA GMs are 'blackballing' him. (Getty Images)  
Rashad McCants, mulling playing overseas this season, says NBA GMs are 'blackballing' him. (Getty Images)  
Burns hasn't spent a single day in the NBA and Wright, who was drafted in the second round of the 2005 NBA Draft, split time between France and Croatia last season.

Nearly one half of the guys that spent the first week of April 2002 in New York City for the famed game haven't even logged a single game in the NBA. That list includes Fraser, DeAngelo Collins, Burns, Daniel Horton, Dockery, Brad Buckman, Ingram, Garrison, Thompson, Eric Williams and Torin Francis.

Thirteen players from the highly regarded group spent last season somewhere overseas. That doesn't include Rashad McCants, who had a short stint in the NBDL, Horton -- who didn't play anywhere because of injury -- in addition to Fraser, Burns, Dockery and Thompson, all of whom are out of basketball.

"It should tell the kids coming up that you need to have something to fall back on," May said. "Did anyone think that Deron Williams would be an elite player in the league? Nobody did. You just never know."

While Williams was ranked in the bottom half of every recruit guru's Top 100 a decade ago, McCants' name could be found just below Amar'e and Carmelo. He was a shoo-in as an NBA lifer, and many even figured he'd be an All-Star at the highest level. Instead, McCants was persuaded to accept a stint with the NBDL's Texas Legends last season in hopes of getting another shot in the NBA.

It never happened and now McCants, who has started his own entertainment company, is contemplating playing overseas this season.

"They are blackballing me," McCants said of the NBA general managers. "They won't let me back in."

However, one NBA general manager told that it's because McCants' talent just doesn't outweigh the "other baggage."

"He's not a bad guy and hasn't done anything wrong," the GM said. "But he's had his chances and didn't succeed and now the mindset of general managers is to try and find the 'next' guy. McCants hasn't played in two years now."

Collins was an enigma coming out of Inglewood High (Calif.) who tried to make the jump from high school. He also places blame -- and claims the Miami Heat would have won the NBA title if they had him on their roster this past season.

"I know right now I'd be playing in the NBA if I didn't get all the bad press right before the draft," said Collins, who blames an ESPN "Outside the Lines" report. "When I saw that, I knew I'd never play in the NBA."

Despite Collins' assertions that the media stood in the way of his NBA dream, he told he is more than content over in China, where he is currently averaging 24.1 points, 13.6 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 4.4 blocks a game.

Collins is only one of the many ex-McDonald's All-Americans who appears to have come to grips with the fact they won't ever step on the court for an NBA game -- while others realize it's unlikely they won't return to The Association.

Thompson, who barely played at Duke and then was a role guy at Northwestern, has thrived in the financial industry, recently joining the firm Jackson Wabash in Chicago.

"I miss playing with a passion," Thompson said. "But there comes a point in your life where you have to transition to play the bills -- and that's what I had to do. I felt that I could make as much money doing this as going overseas."

But the majority of the McDonald's All-Americans from the Class of 2002 are enjoying life playing abroad.

"Obviously, my dream is to play in the NBA," said Buckman, a former Texas forward who spent parts of last season in three countries -- Germany, Croatia and Turkey. "But life in Europe is pretty amazing. I've had a blast."

"Basketball over here is good," added ex-Wake Forest big man Eric Williams. "It's not as easy as people think and guys get multi-million contracts. I've made tons of money and the best part is it's all tax-free. Life isn't all that different than being in the NBA -- except you're in another country."

Williams earned $200,000 his first season in Italy, made $300,000 this past season and has his rent and use of a car paid for by the team. Anthony Roberson earned $375,000 a year ago, his first in Italy.

Fraser said it's not the notoriety -- or lack thereof -- that has been the most difficult aspect for him.

"Realizing how close I was to having financial freedom," said Fraser, who currently works as an admission representative for a college. "Not the lifestyle as a star. The lifestyle of not having to struggle."

"Get your degree," Thompson said. "Everyone that was there won't be there when it goes sour. Everyone blowing smoke up your ass won't be there. Go to a good school because, at the end of the day, you have yourself. No one is going to help you."

"Education is key," Fraser added. "You need it. Period. Education helps you develop as a man."

Burns, who can be found playing down at the local YMCA these days, sometimes finds himself caught reflecting back to that week in New York City, what seems like yesterday, and a vivid conversation he shared Redick.

"J.J. knew exactly what he wanted," Burns said. "He was humble and worked. We were all talking about the NBA and how quickly we were going to get there and he was talking about playing at Duke for four years and getting an education. That's what he told me and look at him now."

The crazy aspect is that Redick wasn't necessarily preparing himself for the NBA. He said he took an Italian class his junior year because his plan was to play overseas.

"I wanted to be able to speak Italian," said Redick, who scored 26 points and was the MVP of the McDonald's Game. "At that point, I really didn't think I would ever play in the NBA."

But Redick's a rare breed among those who are indulged and pampered in the grassroots basketball scene.

"It's difficult because so many things are given to you," Burns said. "Your mentality changes."

And so, in many cases, did their entire lives.


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