When the NBA entered into discussions about an age limit for draftees in the early part of the last decade, the named “Korleone Young” was the go-to warning shot sent by those that were against players becoming draft-eligible right out of high school. There were other preps-to-pros flameouts – the sad case of Leon Smith comes to mind, Lenny Cooke’s NBA career never took shape, and even Stephen Jackson was technically thought to be a bit of a bust after needing years to find his NBA foothold after declaring for the league after not playing basketball for his community college.
Still, “Korleone Young” was the name that every general columnist and cable TV chatter would bring up, often utilized in a ridiculously inaccurate hyperbolic statement like, “for every Kobe Bryant, there’s a Korleone Young.” Ignoring the fact that, of the 38 players taken out of American high schools between 1995 and 2005, the healthy majority went just about as far as their talents would suggest. With many to wild and lasting success.
Korleone Young, you may have guessed, is not one of those players. A second round pick for the Detroit Pistons in 1998, Young played just 15 (very good) NBA minutes in his career. And while that’s not an atypical number for a second round pick, Young’s talent and relative age should have secured plenty of second and third NBA chances for the 6-7 forward. Instead, Young flamed out in a haze of poor financial decisions, reckless use of drugs and alcohol, and most stunningly, an abject lack of guidance from just about every would-be leader in his basketball life, as documented by Grantland’s Jonathan Abrams in his devastating feature.
It’s a typical must-read Abrams piece, and one that takes us back to a rather nasty time in the high school-to-AAU-to-college-to-NBA cycle.
Prep hoops should have been in a good place in the mid-to-late 1990s, especially with talents like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant becoming All-Stars in just their second seasons out of high school. Shoe companies, mindful of a new generation of players that they could make money off of, went out of their way to ply shady AAU circuit “coaches” like two-time convict (with another alleged hijacking case pending) Myron Piggie Sr. with heaps of cash to funnel toward amateur high schoolers as they weighed what college to attend, a possible jump to the NBA, and most importantly to this terrible shoe companies, what shoes to endorse as a pro.
Strangely, the heart of this sordid time in hoops history centered in the Midwest, somewhat near Young’s home in Wichita, Kansas. For those looking for further information about the subject, Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel’s book ‘Sole Influence’ is a must-read, if you haven’t delved in already.
Young, dressed in the school's white-and-gray uniform, made his announcement at Hargrave in April 1998. "I've made [this decision] based on many hours of consultation with my family and friends," he said. "In my heart, I think I can become a real good NBA player."
Kim Young greeted her son afterward. "You did great, baby," she said. "I'm very proud of you."
Piggie spoke with a USA Today reporter that day. "There will be a lot of criticism," he said. "When it's all said and done, the ones who are negative now will jump onboard later."
Clarence Gaines Jr., a Bulls scout who had watched Young play during his senior season, was unimpressed. "Would I consider taking him?" he wrote in his report. "Not at this time. I don't like his competitive make-up and his lack of basketball skills. If I was a college coach, I would be drooling over him. He can be a fine prospect if he pursues the traditional path. But if he chooses to go the NBA route, he could be a big bust."
But Young was determined, and pushed by the father figure who followed him to Virginia.
"He wanted to be a pro basketball player," [briefly-tenured agent Jerome] Stanley said. "I laid out options. I remember I ran into [Georgetown coach] John Thompson at one point. John Thompson said, 'Let me have him for a year.' It really wasn't my call to make. It was Korleone's call to make and [Piggie's]. Piggie was basically calling the shots."
The top prep player in the 1998 class to declare for the NBA draft was New Jersey-born Al Harrington, still currently in the NBA after 15 successful years as a pro. In a lot of ways, Harrington’s game reminded of Young’s – he was a tweener of a forward, someone that liked to bang in the paint against high school kids, but a player that would have to refine his perimeter touch as a small forward in the NBA. If anything, Young had a better chance at besting Harrington – he was longer and seemingly more athletic – but Harrington outplayed Korleone in a somewhat famous pairing between their two high school teams in the spring of 1998.
The game hardly drove Al Harrington into the lottery, as he was taken 25th in that year’s draft by the Indiana Pacers. Young would slide to 40, while future two-time All-Star Rashard Lewis (someone that was actually invited to the draft green room, as a possible lottery pick) slid to 32. It was a strange draft, as even college-bred prospects that were deemed to be headcases (like Iowa’s Ricky Davis and Oregon State’s Corey Benjamin) dotted the lower rungs of the first round.
The lockout hit soon after, and Harrington found a literal home in Indianapolis with veteran big man Antonio Davis while the NBA withheld player checks. Young seemed to be in good standing with the Detroit Pistons when the 1999 season eventually commenced, in spite of the team’s acknowledgment that he needed significant fine-tuning on his game in order to turn himself into a capable pro, and yet the team declined their relatively cheap second year option on the player, despite his significant upside. NBA teams weren’t just in the business of stashing developing players in 1999, as yet another organization failed Korleone Young.
Of course, as Abrams’ piece delves into, Korleone Young has himself to blame above all for at the very least squandering that potential post-NBA career.
Young admits to a series of poor business decisions, doling out what little shoe company and NBA money he had left to hangers-on, on trips to clubs, and on cars and jewelry. Currently living back in Wichita, estranged from the mother of his three children and with no assets to his name, Young lives with his mother while trying to work past a decade and a half of staying out of the day-to-day workforce. He admits to having no real resume, and utilizing chances and tryouts with international teams as paid vacations more than anything, self-medicating and working through bouts of depression along the way.
And, as you’ll hopefully read, there are no quick and one-shot answers to blame here – like, say, the NBA’s collectively bargained drafting of high schoolers until 2006.
The NBA did fail Korleone Young, but so did his absent father. So did the devastating and criminal AAU circuit of the mid-to-late 1990s, so did his own personal chemical imbalances, and so did his myriad advisors. Just a series of abject failures, as wide as Korleone Young’s significant wingspan.
He’s 34 now, and contemplating a job as a youth advisor of some sort at a Wichita church. Thankfully, even after what must feel like a lifetime’s worth of disappointment between that high school announcement and where Korleone Young is right now, there’s still plenty of time to figure the rest of a lifetime out.