Worth the wait
Why the NBA will cash in when Durant, Oden turn pro
Posted: Wednesday February 7, 2007 5:50PM; Updated: Wednesday February 7, 2007 6:00PM
Do you know who Kevin Durant is? How about Greg Oden?
If you do, the National Basketball Association is happy. No, neither Durant nor Oden plays in the NBA, but what the professional league hopes is that players like these two will build a reputation in college so that when they come to the NBA they'll be more marketable. That's why the NBA changed its rules this past year, prohibiting American high school players from jumping directly to the pros without pausing to flirt with higher education.
Ever since 1996, when Kobe Bryant went directly from high school to play-for-pay, most of the best U.S. basketball players have followed his lead. As a consequence, these youngsters have not used college to marinate in the spotlight and enter the NBA as ready-made drawing cards.
While it confounds me that the NBA -- and the National Football League, as well -- can deny adult citizens of athletic merit the chance to make a living strictly on the basis of age, I certainly do agree that for almost all young athletes a year or two of seasoning in academia is beneficial -- for both their basketball and their personal growth. Someone like LeBron James, who can move seamlessly from high school to professional stardom, is simply freakish. Too many young players were seduced into making the leap and too many teams were seduced into grabbing this raw talent and found themselves with a raw deal, as the teens found themselves out of their league and wasting away on an NBA bench.
So for the first time in a decade, the best of last year's high school stars is incarcerated in college for a year. Oden, a 7-foot center, is at Ohio State; Durant, a nimble 6-10, is on course to be the college player of the year at Texas. Especially if they lead their teams deep into the NCAA Tournament on network television in March, they'll enter the NBA next year as much more ballyhooed rookies.
If you don't think this kind of college display helps, do you know who Sidney Crosby is? No? Well, to a great many people in ice hockey, he is merely the finest prospect since Wayne Gretzky, but Crosby had no college exposure before he came to the National Hockey League, and so he remains fairly well unknown except to hockey connoisseurs.
By forcing high school players to sidetrack for a year of college, the NBA also hopes that if the best prospects spend a year -- or, heavens to Betsy, maybe even two years in college -- they might actually learn to play basketball. In Europe, the top young players spend hours every day ... practicing. Here, our teen stars mostly just play games, year round. As a general rule, the better they are, the more they just shoot and do what they feel like.
In any event, by the time Oden and Durant are drafted this summer -- almost surely as the first two picks -- the NBA hopes that you will have seen the product, read the reviews and will be curious enough to sample it at their box office next year. The key to any league's success is attracting those fringe fans, who, often as not, are more enticed by familiar names than by the sport itself. Hey, that's how it works for Hollywood.