Bill Willoughby’s career is one of those little-known NBA facts, a cautionary tale of one of the first teenage phenoms to be drafted out of high school.
His promising career was cut short following a transition into the league so wrought with pitfalls that it still serves as a case study for youngsters following his path.
Standing 6-foot-8, Willoughby had unlimited potential when he jumped into the NBA nearly 50 years ago. He was blessed with such amazing athleticism that he is one of the few players known to have blocked Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famed skyhook at its apex.
Willoughby made history when he and Darryl Dawkins became the first high school players ever selected in an NBA draft in 1975.
But despite that, Willoughby – including a 47-inch vertical leap – is not on the Mount Rushmore of prep stars – unlike LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Moses Malone and Kevin Garnett. Most fans probably haven’t even heard of him, quite probably because of the mistakes he made.
”Nobody told me anything,” Willoughby said.
Young players entering the NBA today are protected and looked-out for. Willoughby wasn’t. He isn’t bitter but believes his career would have gone differently if he had the options players have today. Instead, when he was drafted, he’d never held a job, couldn’t drive a car and had no idea how to manage money.
So after his playing days, he tried to provide the guidance to others that he needed. He was a mentor through the National Basketball Retired Players Association — and a role model of sorts, since he graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a degree in communications in 2001 at the age of 44.
”You still got to handle your own money and be taught how to,” Willoughby said. ”That’s why when I speak to kids today, I say, ‘Y’all got to know how to write a check and get things notarized and all that, and the younger you do it, it stays with you.’ But they’re not used to that kind of money.”
Spencer Haywood’s lawsuit against the NBA in 1971 — it lasted years and ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he won 9-0 — wound up allowing players to leave college early and enter the NBA, which led to Willoughby and Dawkins being drafted after proving hardships.
It was another 20 years, with the 1989 exemption of Shawn Kemp, before another high schooler was drafted. And in 2005, the CBA was changed to require players who entered the draft to be 19 years of age and at least one year removed from high school.
The age limit could change during the next CBA negotiations, but currently, there are safeguards in place to protect players making the transition into the league, including:
— Agents are more involved. College athletes can declare for the draft to learn whether they should make the jump, and they have the option to return to school.
— The G-League, the NBA’s official minor-league system that allows players not quite ready for full-time NBA play to develop. Some players also benefit from two-way contracts, where they float between the G-League and NBA team. The G League even has its own developmental team, just for those stuck between high school and the NBA because of the age limit.
— Other leagues, both in the U.S. and internationally, can serve as a bridge between high school and the NBA.
Willoughby said if he was playing today, he would go the college route. He would use the year to mature, educate himself, find good people to surround himself with and take advantage of the name, image and likeness rules that allow athletes to get paid in college.
Willoughby was uninformed when he was a kid. Darius Bazley and Jalen Green are young NBA players who were well-informed about their options and have taken full advantage of the knowledge at their disposal.
Green, 19, chose to go the G-League Ignite route – a one-year development program for top prospects – and was drafted by the Houston Rockets.
After high school, Bazley skipped college and took a $1 million internship with New Balance for a year before jumping into the NBA. He was the 23rd pick in the 2019 draft and now, he’s a starter for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Bazley said he gained valuable insight about the shoe business and professionalism during his internship.
”When I got a chance to like, really reflect and look back, I kind of was thinking, it really was risky,” he said. ”You know, you gave up free education and gave up exposure because I wasn’t playing. I gave up a lot of things to try to get here.”
It also worked out pretty well for some others who entered the NBA out of high school.
Dawkins — nicknamed ”Chocolate Thunder” — was a 6-11, 250-pound force around the basket. The fifth pick in the 1975 NBA draft was known for his thunderous dunks and is largely responsible for the reinforced rims currently in arenas today.
Bryant, James, Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, Jermaine O’Neal, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Rashard Lewis are among the most successful players to have made the jump since. All were drafted between 1995 and 2005.
And of course Malone, who was drafted into the American Basketball Association in 1974, became a three-time NBA MVP and Hall of Famer.
Willoughby did have his moments while playing for six different teams during his eight-year NBA career.
While his rejection of Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook is often mentioned when fans talk about Willoughby, he said his career highlight was playing in the 1981 NBA Finals.
He was a slender kid (listed at about 205 pounds) who didn’t understand nutrition, and that affected his play when the 18-year-old became the second-youngest player ever drafted in 1975. Willoughby was overmatched early in his career playing against ”grown men.”
”I didn’t know nothing coming in there,” said Willoughby, now 64. ”I’m coming out, I’ve just gone to the prom and I come out there and I’ve got (to play) guys, you know, married with kids.”
But even with all the current NBA safeguards, Willoughby said young players still make the same mistakes he saw people making in the 1970s and ’80s. Though no longer a mentor for the NBA, he still reaches out to young players and provides advice to those willing to listen.
Willoughby has had his own legal problems. He was arrested in March of 2016 after an altercation with police. He was charged with possession of marijuana, resisting arrest and aggravated assault on a police officer. He later entered a pre-trial intervention program for six months to avoid prosecution.
Willoughby sees lifestyle choices as the most likely hurdle to derail today’s players.
”You can’t go out there and burn the candle on both ends, stuff your pockets and think that’s going to make you have fun and make you happy,” Willoughby said. ”It’s not. … You don’t have to buy no Rolls Royces, you know, $40,000 Rolexes and have all these girls on the side just to keep up with everybody.”
Experience continues to be a cruel teacher for young NBA hopefuls.
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