Seasoning Basketball's Young Hopefuls


By David Shook As the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Jersey Nets prepared for their championship series in the first week of June, the National Basketball Assn. hosted a hoops classic of a different kind. This one was an invitational camp in Chicago for college underclassmen, foreign players, and high school grads who think they might have the right stuff to be included in the NBA draft on June 26. Many players who took part were barely 19.

These exceptional teenage athletes have big dreams of sports fame. But what's best for them? Let's face it: Most 18- or 19-year-olds are better off in school than playing with the pros. The young players don't have the maturity and guidance they'll need to thrive in the unforgiving pressure cooker of pro ball, where easy money, high expectations, and grueling physical demands can crush young talent.

Small wonder so many coaches and fans want the NBA to institute a minimum-age requirement. Even NBA Commissioner David Stern has said players should be at least 20 years old before playing in the league.

"NO LEGAL BASIS." The NBA should forget an age requirement. If athletes are good enough and want to turn pro as teenagers, that's their legal prerogative -- and Stern or anyone else can't do much to stop them. Imposing a minimum-age requirement "wouldn't stand a chance in court," says Mark Conrad, a professor of sports law at Fordham University. "There's absolutely no legal basis for it."

Age is only part of the problem, however, and the NBA isn't the only one at fault. Also making young players' move up to pro ball more treacherous than it need be is the college game's governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (NCAA). It oversees college basketball and its players' transition to the pros, and it has stringent rules that student-athletes must follow to maintain their amateur status.

This results in a pro basketball selection system that's unforgiving -- too unforgiving. Young players who feel they're ready must officially declare themselves eligible for the NBA draft by a certain date between seasons if they want to leave college early. They have to renounce their remaining college eligibility and walk away from any chance of coming back for another season as an amateur.

LOST IDENTITIES. "Too many general managers of pro teams overlook the maturity issue," says G. Lynn Lashbrook, an Oregon sports agent who runs a Web site for agents and advisers called Sports-Management.com. "Basketball doesn't have a well structured transitional period. So the youngest players go from being superstar teens to benchwarmers in the pros. They lose their identity. At the end of the day, it's a pretty overwhelming experience."

What to do? The NBA could easily establish an amateur draft system that wouldn't put so much competitive pressure on pro teams to nab the best players early and push them onto the court to justify their huge salaries. Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League use their minor leagues this way. They make the selection process more of a future claim on a player when he's ready than a decision on which new players should be signed up for the following season.

Players are drafted early in their high school or collegiate careers and continue to play at that level until graduation. If and when the athlete is ready for the big leagues, the pro team that drafted him can then sign him to a contract -- ending his amateur status.

"THRILLED." One way the NBA could help would be to put more money behind its new developmental league, the National Basketball Developmental League. It comprises eight teams in small cities in the Southeast and has just completed its first season.

The NBA hasn't disclosed how much it invested in the new league, but it recently hesitated to add more teams next season or expand the league into other regions. "We're still working on the financial model," says the NBDL's first president, Phil Evans, who was hired in May. "We're thrilled with the quality of basketball we had in the first year. Now, we're focused on driving attendance and local sponsorship."

The NBA commissioner has said he'd like to see the NBDL move into other areas of the country, but some of the pro league's owners still consider the new system a pilot -- one that has to prove it can stand on its own financially. Furthermore, the NBA should not only expand the NBDL but try to orient it toward providing a transition to the pros for very young players and late bloomers who need a few extra years to develop.

BENEFITS ALL AROUND. Such a move will help future players avoid the experience of 20-year-old Zach Randolph, who left Michigan State last year after his freshman season. Scouts felt he needed more time in college but also believed that because of his talent, he would probably be drafted in the first round, anyway. Randolph is now a forward for the Portland Trailblazers, a rookie this past season who rode the bench. If he had been drafted and then remained in college another year or two, he could have entered the league a more polished pro prospect.

The team might have benefited from the delay, too. If Randolph had stayed in college and made a splash, he might be a big draw. As it is, attendance at Blazers games was down 5% this year, even though the team had an impressive 30-11 home record.

In fact, TV audiences for all NBA games are steadily declining, according to Nielsen Media Research, and season-ticket sales are lackluster in many markets. The seemingly exploitative nature of NCAA basketball and the NBA draft only adds to the growing alienation of many fans. They can see what many NBA owners refuse to see: That the young players (with rare exceptions like the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant) are simply too green to have a fair shot at making it -- and at drawing fans back to the game. Shook, a star forward on his high school basketball team in Grand Rapids, Mich., once matched up against NBA star Chris Webber on the Badger State paint


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