A couple of mischievous youngsters were on the loose at the Los Angeles Clippers' media day in early October. They ran around with squirt guns, spraying each other and any unfortunate soul who wandered into their crossfire. Security probably would have chased the pair away—if they hadn't been two of the Clippers' 2000 draft picks, 19-year-old forward Darius Miles and 20-year-old guard Quentin Richardson. With five players under 21, die Clippers have a roster that's younger than the cast of Dawson's Creek, and coach Alvin Gentry knows that he's likely to witness more kid stuff than almost any coach in the league. "Somehow I don't think you're going to see anybody show up to practice with the Miami Heat or New York Knicks packing a water pistol," he says.
But soon you might. The face of the NBA is changing into one that only needs a shave once a week; the stream of youngsters entering the league with little or no college experience, many of them teenagers, is growing every season. Only a few years ago there was consternation about players turning pro at such a young age, but a high schooler declaring himself eligible for the draft these days barely causes a ripple. The kids have been so emboldened by the success of teens turned pro, such as Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves—and so heedless of the fates of Taj McDavid or Ellis Richardson, who skipped college to enter the draft and were never selected—that they're going to keep coming. League and team officials are powerless to stop them. "I'm planning on seeing a high school tournament around Christmas," says Seattle SuperSonics general manager Wally Walker. "A couple of years ago we wouldn't have considered that." Even the Utah Jazz, the buttoned-down conservatives of the league, selected a high school player, 19-year-old shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson, with the 23rd pick in June's draft.
The fortunes of several possible playoff teams this year will turn on players who aren't far removed from their senior proms—or in the case of budding Dallas Mavericks third-year forward Dirk Nowitzki, a 22-year-old from W�rzburg, Germany, their last days of gymnasium. In Jonathan Bender, 19, Al Harrington, 20, and Jermaine O'Neal, 22, the Indiana Pacers' new coach, Isiah Thomas, will entrust a trio of untested forwards with important roles in defense of their Eastern Conference tide. The Orlando Magic has transformed itself into an Eastern Conference power, in no small part because it worked a sign-and-trade for fourth-year forward Tracy McGrady, 21, rewarding him with a seven-year, $93 million contract. Despite heated bidding, the Sonics held on to their budding star, third-year forward Rashard Lewis, 21, and the Milwaukee Bucks did the same, retaining promising forward Tim Thomas, 23. The only one of those seven players who passed through a college classroom on his way to the NBA was Thomas, who spent a year at Villanova before turning pro at 20.
Very early entrants into the NBA are like personal computers: They're increasingly common, but not every owner knows how to use them. From now on, one factor that will separate successful franchises from losing ones will be the way they nurture their young talent on and off the court. Before Garnett arrived in Minnesota, in 1995, the team had an elaborate support system ready that included everything from a surrogate family for Garnett to live with to pizza parties with University of Minnesota players. It turned out that Garnett, 24, didn't need the help, but he admits, "There's a lot to learn. It's everything from how to pass out of the double team to where to get a good breakfast on the road. Some things nobody can teach you, but it definitely helps to be with a team that knows how to help you."
A young player knows that he also has to prove to his teammates as well as to his opponents that he is man enough to survive. "This is a confidence league," says Gentry. "If your opponent sees he can break your will, he's going to do it." For Garnett, a three-time All-Star and the highest-paid player in the game, die moment of truth came playing against his teammates during training as a rookie. " Doug West came at me from the jump in scrimmages, just to see if I had heart," he says. "Then I got into a shouting match with Sam Mitchell the first day. I was just standing up for myself, showing that I was going to earn my respect."
The youngsters have other big obstacles to surmount on their way to establishing themselves as pros, such as dealing with the age difference among them and most of their teammates, handling the increased media attention and keeping up with the giant leap forward in the size, speed, skill, smarts and strength of the competition. It took the 6'9", 205-pound Miles—who, at No. 3, was the highest draft pick ever out of high school—only two exhibition games to recognize that he will have to do something about his lack of muscle. "I didn't lift in high school," he says. "The first time I walked into our weight room, I didn't know what was in there or how to use most of it. I had no idea there were so many kinds of machines."
That's typical of the youngsters—sometimes they don't realize how much they don't know. Last season's co-Rookie of the Year, Elton Brand, who stayed at Duke through his sophomore season, remembers die bits of wisdom he gleaned last year from his older Chicago Bulls teammates, like Randy Brown, Hersey Hawkins, Will Perdue and Dickey Simpkins, things he never would have known to ask. "They told me to ice down after practice even if your knees don't hurt, little things like that," says Brand. "I still hear those things today, even though every one of those guys is gone."
Most teams are well equipped to address on-the-court issues, but those, too, can be tricky with players so young. One rule is that more can be learned by action than by observation, or, as Bryant puts it, "Sink or swim, baby. Sink or swim." Young talent tends to go stale when it's kept on the bench for too long. Bottom-feeders like the Clippers have nothing to lose by giving their kids a lot of playing time, but even teams with more at stake should make sure their young players aren't glued to the pine. During Bryant's first two years in the league the Lakers endured his youthful mistakes, even in the playoffs, despite considering themselves title contenders. Likewise Garnett, Lewis and McGrady all got significant minutes by their second season. The Portland Trail Blazers, meanwhile, put O'Neal on the floor only for short and irregular stretches, and all they developed was a frustrated player who was thrilled to be traded to Indiana last summer.
The more the youngster gets to learn by trial and error, the faster he will probably come to the moment of clarity that some attain, the point at which he finally understands what it is to be an NBA player. For Bryant, that revelation came last Feb. 1 before a game at San Antonio. "That morning in the shootaround we were going through some drills and going through the rhythm of the offense," he says. "Something just clicked. I knew what my teammates wanted, what Phil [Jackson, the L.A. coach] wanted, how to organize the structure of the team. I figure it was a process that just took time."
Players like Miles can only hope that such a moment is in their near future. "I don't know when I'll feel I've made it," he says. "All I know is that guys like me have to go out every night with the idea of being a little bit better than the night before. The NBA is like a big forest, and I'm trying to find my way."