NBA considers plugging flood of teen-agers with new eligibility rule
Posted: Wednesday May 26, 2004 5:58PM; Updated: Wednesday May 26, 2004 6:09PM
A record 13 high school players have made themselves eligible for the NBA Draft this year. A high number, indeed, but as many as eight or nine are projected to go in the first round. Although you won't find a can't-miss LeBron James in the bunch, many of the draft's early entrants have already secured their financial futures. Sebastian Telfair, who hasn't played a minute of college ball, has a $15 million safety net, courtesy of a six-year endorsement deal signed with adidas. Fellow high-schooler Josh Smith, a 6-foot-8 forward who is blowing off a scholarship to Indiana, has a similar adidas deal for $12 million-plus.
Big men with intriguing, yet still unfamiliar, names such as Martynas Andriuskevicius, Andris Biedrins, Peter John Ramos and Ha Seung-jin top a list of an additional 38 early-entry draft candidates from the international ranks. A handful of these 18- and 19-year-olds are certain to crack the first round.
The waves of raw youth washing into the league have much of the NBA's old guard distraught. "The reality is, I wish we had an age limit," Detroit Pistons coach Larry Brown told the New York Post. "I get sick to my stomach."
Well, coach, grab some Pepto-Bismol and get used to the craziness. Unlike the NFL, which is caught in a battle with Maurice Clarett over the league's draft-eligibility requirements (which demand a player be at least three years out of high school), the NBA has a much less stringent standard. A player's high school class need only have graduated for him to enter his name in the NBA Draft.
As the chorus of the concerned has raised its collective voice over an ever-younger league, NBA commissioner David Stern has spent the past few months wrinkling his brow and wringing his hands as he tries to convince anyone who will listen that the future of mankind and basketball depends on imposing an age limit. Presumably he doesn't mean an older age limit. No matter the merits of the idea, the NBA players' union isn't likely to buy anytime soon. Nor should it.
Sure, some of these kids have the shelf life of an American Idol contestant and they're not always models of maturity. But last we checked the police blotter, college attendance doesn't come with a character guarantee, either.
Look at the NBA today and you could argue that drafting teen-agers is a shrewd long-term buy, though obviously not a sure thing. But any list of the top 10 players in the league would be incomplete without the names Tracy McGrady, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal, all of whom came straight out of high school. Interestingly, three of those four are playing in the conference finals.
With a membership growing younger each season, it's no wonder the NBA Players Association has fought an age-limit clause. Some of the league's older players, in particular former Georgetown alums Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, have notably dissented from the union's party line, but they've held little sway and probably won't be any more influential when the Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after next season.
"The vast majority of guys have always been against an age limitation simply on the grounds you shouldn't restrict someone's right to make a living," offers union spokesperson Dan Wasserman. "We don't think LeBron [James], for instance, shouldn't have been entitled to be in the draft. If the teams think the guy is too immature, emotionally and physically, don't draft him. No one says you have to draft these guys. No one says you can't go to college."
Underlying the union's resistance is the notion that the age-limit push is more about business than any moralistic mission. It has to do with a desire for greater control over guys who can break the bank. By entering the league as such an early age, every LeBron or Carmelo Anthony has an opportunity to sign as many as two maximum-salary, long-term (seven years, $141 million should the player re-sign with his current team) contracts, should the player enjoy a lengthy, fruitful career.
The union coyly says it would now consider bargaining over the clause in the next contract if the owners would, let's say, drop a year off of the standard rookie contract. That's an unfortunate position. Better a kid grab the shoe money and chase the pro dream than simply take up space on a college campus. Better he intern on an NBA bench, even.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.