A Risk Worth Taking
For many high school and college stars, the decision to go pro early is a sound one
On the night of the 1998 NBA draft, Rashard Lewis looked like the poster boy for an NCAA stay-in-school campaign. The 6'10" high school senior from Alief, Texas, who hoped to be a lottery pick, sat forlornly in Vancouver's General Motors Place with tears in his eyes when his name wasn't called in the first round. The Sonics finally chose Lewis with the third selection in the second round. After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Lewis proved he could play in the NBA in the 1999-2000 playoffs when he averaged 15.4 points and 6.9 rebounds in Seattle's first-round loss to the Jazz. Last summer the Sonics signed Lewis to a three-year, $13-3 million deal (though he can opt out of the third year) and he proved his worth, averaging 14.8 points and 6.9 rebounds.
Lewis is only one of many former high school seniors or collegiate underclassmen who started as cautionary tales but blossomed into success stories. That may be disturbing for college coaches, but it's information not lost on today's young players, 40 of whom—including six high schoolers—made themselves eligible for this year's draft on June 27 as of Sunday's deadline. "Draft night doesn't tell the whole story," says NBA agent Arn Tellem, whose clients include two of the NBA's brightest stars, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, both of whom went directly from high school to the NBA. "For most of these players, once they're given an opportunity, they do very well for themselves."
Although the NBA and NCAA try to discourage young players from turning pro, the system all but demands they test the waters. For one thing, there is now much more information available to help a collegian or a high schooler make an informed decision if he puts in for the draft. He gets the benefit of input from NBA scouts and general managers who project where the player will be drafted. The player can even compete at NBA predraft showcases and still withdraw from the draft by June 20 if he hasn't signed with an agent. (No such escape option exists for high schoolers who enter the draft.)
More than that, however, it's the league's salary structure that most encourages young players to jump. Here are some factors they must consider:
The free-agent clock. Under the NBA collective bargaining agreement, teams can lock up their first-round picks for as many as five years before the player can cash in as a free agent Thus, it may be prudent for someone like St. John's freshman Omar Cook, who recently declared himself draft-eligible, to get into the league as early as possible, even if it means riding the pine his first couple of seasons. Says agent Joel Bell, "I've heard many college players say, 'I'm not ready now, but in three or four years I will be, and that's what counts.' "
Positioning. At 6'7", Arizona junior Michael Wright is too small to play power forward in the NBA, but that's what he would have played if he returned to college next year. That undoubtedly factored into Wright's decision to enter the draft, just as it did last year for 6'8" Florida freshman Dormell Harvey, who was selected 22nd overall by the Knicks, who traded him to the Mavericks. "Donnell never stepped more than five feet from the basket at Florida," says Harvey's agent, Dan Fagan. "For him to be successful as a pro, he needs to develop his perimeter skills."
The Terence Morris factor. So named for the 6'9" Maryland senior who probably would have been a lottery pick had he come out after averaging 15-3 points and 7.1 rebounds in his sophomore year but now will be lucky to be selected in the first round following his senior season, when he had 12.2 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. That lesson wasn't lost on Alabama freshman Gerald Wallace, who has entered the draft even though he may have lost considerable ground by completing his freshman year (and averaging only 6.3 points a game in SEC play) rather than turning pro straight out of high school a year ago.
To be sure, some youngsters also make costly mistakes by trying to turn pro too early, but as long as the odds favor the players plenty more will be willing to take their chances. "These guys are trying to maximize their careers," Tellem says. "If the process gives them all this incentive to leave early, then you can't fault them for doing it."
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