Straight to the NBA - without a stop at college

Next month, a new generation of basketball legends will be born. On a stage deep within the vault of Madison Square Garden in New York, commissioner David Stern will call out the names of the top players taken in the 2001 National Basketball Association Draft.

There are already whispers, all of them breathless.

Eddy Curry is a behemoth, forged in the likeness of superstar Shaquille O'Neal. Tyson Chandler has the silken skills of a guard in the body of a budding center. Kwame Brown may be the next Kevin Garnett, a lithe whip of sinew who catapults his body three feet above the hardwood.

This is an annual rite. On draft day, such untested athletes become potential saviors, hopes for teams distinguished only by futility. Yet this year, there is an intriguing asterisk. All these heroes-in-waiting are high schoolers

who are forsaking the quads of college campuses for the prospect of a Mercedes in the driveway and a chance to slam over Shaq.

In all, a record six high schoolers will be on the NBA block this summer, with four expected to go within the first 13 picks. While that's unusual, scouts say, the trend is here to stay, and it is already changing basketball at every level, from how colleges scout for players to the quality of the pro game.

Moreover, as more high schoolers cast their lot with the NBA, there are questions of whether it's wise or appropriate to give million-dollar contracts to kids who don't even know how to wash their laundry. Indeed, critics say, many of these teens will be unprepared - either mentally or physically - for the rigors of pro life and are liable to fail.

"It's a dangerous trend," says Van Coleman of Future Stars, a scouting service. "There's the possibility for more and more failures over time."

So far, most high schoolers have made the transition to the NBA successfully. Of the 13 prep players that have entered the NBA draft since 1995, nine have established themselves with teams. Some have even become superstars. Kobe Bryant is the closest thing to Michael Jordan's heir, and Kevin Garnett - the first high schooler to make the jump in 20 years - has the richest contract in hoops, $126 million over six years.

But the risks are manifold. Taj MacDavid and Ellis Richardson were never drafted, and collegiate rules bar any preps who enter the NBA draft from ever playing college ball - regardless of whether they're selected. Korleone Young played a few games for the Detroit Pistons, then was cut. Leon Smith never even played a game after he was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks. He fell out of favor after a series of run-ins with the coach and later attempted suicide.

To some, criticism of the NBA's practice seems hypocritical. Jennifer Capriati fell into drug abuse after her rise as a teen tennis queen a decade ago and is only now regaining her standing - yet few advocate barring teens from the tennis tour. Baseball clubs routinely draft players straight out of high school, and teens are far from uncommon in hockey.

But sports experts point to one telling difference for basketball: the lack of an established support system. Generally, young tennis players are constantly chaperoned and often have a parent with them. In baseball and hockey, players develop in extensive minor league systems designed to nurture their skills and sensibilities.

The Los Angeles Dodgers even have a small complex in Florida, called Dodgertown, for their youngest players. Meals, lodging, and transportation are all provided, and the players live with the coaches. For now, basketball has no such arrangement, and that has meant that families of kids who have gone from preps to pros have had to be creative.

Last year, Ethel Miles moved from East St. Louis, Ill., to Los Angeles to live with her son, Darius, who had been drafted by the Clippers. DeShawn Stevenson of the Utah Jazz shares a condominium with his uncle in Salt Lake City and, as of March, still got a monthly allowance from his mother in Fresno, Calif.

For many players, such arrangements have worked out well, but colleges - as well as the NBA and its clubs - believe something is wrong. Universities have lost entire recruiting classes due to high schoolers who turned pro and underclassmen who found the lure of instant NBA riches too attractive, making schools wary of spending much time and money wooing the nation's top prep players.

For their part, NBA teams are afraid to ignore promising young players, knowing their potential. But many say drafting high schoolers has lowered the standard of the league and contributed to its consistently dropping shooting percentages. It has also turned the NBA into a "Romper Room" of petulant, inexperienced players in need of seasoning.

"The whole situation is more volatile," says Pat Harrington, a scout for PrepStars.com. "For every kid who makes the roster, a veteran is kicked out."

To help fix the problem, the NBA is considering a 20-year-old minimum age requirement. It is also establishing a developmental league this fall for players over 20 and others who are drafted and then cut. Most experts agree it's a step in the right direction.

"The NBA has got to be where it starts," says Mr. Coleman. "We're starting to see the potential for damage."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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