Older, but Not Wiser
A plan to push teens toward college by raising the minimum age could be a setback to future stars
It is increasingly likely that commissioner David Stern and players' union chief Billy Hunter will shake hands next month on a minimum-age rule. Starting in 2004, a player would be prohibited from entering the league if he wasn't at least 20 in the calendar year of the draft. While Hunter doesn't favor an age minimum, he's willing to agree to it to gain concessions in negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. Stern believes the rule would improve the quality of play and the image of the league, as well as raise the profile of rookies, who would be more familiar to NBA fans after being hyped for a year or two in college.
"I'm hearing from a lot of agents that it's going to happen," says a Western Conference executive, echoing a view held by several G.M.'s. "I wouldn't be surprised," says agent Marc Cornstein, who has heard that his client, 17-year-old Darko Milicic, the likely pick after top prospect LeBron James, was declared eligible by Stern for the June draft because otherwise he couldn't have entered the NBA until 2005.
Advocates of the minimum age rule insist that players will benefit from time on a college campus. Most athletes begin to fill out when they're 20, says Nets president Rod Thorn, and "you have a couple more years of living before you enter the league." While R.C. Buford, the G.M. of the Spurs, supports the rule, he notes that the league must provide an option for teenagers who don't want to go to college or aren't academically eligible. (At present the NBDL has a minimum age of 20.)
Many league executives are staunchly opposed to the change, including Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "It just avoids the problem of how we develop players on the court and off," he says. It's not as if the record of teens turned pros is worse than that of college grads or foreign imports; some of them have developed into the NBA's most valuable assets. Among the 31 players who have entered the league since 1995 but would have been excluded under the proposed rule are Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Stephon Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal—All-Stars who by and large have handled themselves well off the court as well as on. (That group includes other productive pros, such as Gilbert Arenas, Ricky Davis, Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis and Tony Parker.)
True, some teens have not panned out—Leon Smith and Will Avery, for example—but most have used their first two years in the league to speed their maturation. If 6'11" Kwame Brown, the No. 1 pick in 2001 as a 19-year-old, is anything like his predecessors, he will blossom for the Wizards next season. There are 10 American players who were teenage draftees and who now have played at least three full seasons. Collectively, they were averaging 19.4 points at week's end.
It's hard to imagine how a year or two in college could have made these players any better. "Everybody who said [that entering the NBA from high school] was a bad idea was just completely wrong," says Bryant. "I learned so much in my first two seasons in the NBA. It's tough to believe that college would have done that for me."
American teens are also likely to fall behind their European counterparts by attending college. The NCAA restricts practice time to 20 hours per week, while players overseas face no limits on the hours they can spend in the gym. Then again, all this could be moot if a future LeBron challenges the proposed rule in court. "You tell him he's got to go to the CBA or somewhere and make $35,000," says Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. "How is that going to fly?"
Jason Williams of Memphis
What Can Brown Do for Him?
To those wondering whether 69-year-old coach Hubie Brown can relate to the NBA's young millionaires, consider this: Through Sunday the Grizzlies' Jason ( White Chocolate) Williams ranked seventh in the league in assists per turnover (3.41), ahead of such playmaking luminaries as Steve Nash (3.05), Jason Kidd (2.33) and Mike Bibby (2.24), for whom Williams was traded before last season. "I've grown from my mistakes," says Williams, 27, who averaged 2.43 assists per turnover last season. "Other than [the arrival of team president] Jerry West, Hubie Brown is the best thing to ever happen to this organization."