The NBA's Youth Squad


By Brian Hindo Chances are you've never heard of Greg Oden. But you can bet that every National Basketball Assn. scout has. Oden is a specimen -- a lithe, 7-foot center, 250 pounds and agile, a deft passer on the low block. He also just finished his sophomore year of high school. Scouts say the 16-year-old Indianapolis native could be the first player taken in the 2006 NBA draft -- if he wants. For now, Oden says he has other ideas: "I really want to go to college. I want to be a psychologist."

Not many would blame Oden if he puts off college. He would hardly be the first high school prodigy wooed away from it by a guaranteed three-year contract worth more than $10 million -- and untold millions more in endorsements. Since 1995, when Kevin Garnett skipped college and was selected fifth in the draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, 22 high schoolers have made the leap. The largest crop ever -- as many as 10, led by Atlanta standout Dwight Howard -- will enter the league next season after selection at the 2004 draft meeting on June 24.

The influx of teenage millionaires has fundamentally altered the NBA -- and may become an issue in labor talks next year. Teams draft on potential, usually investing years of training and millions of dollars in salary before preps develop into stars. Most work out: Of the 22 drafted, only three aren't in the league anymore. Some, such as Garnett and Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, are among the league's elite. Others, such as Washington's Kwame Brown, the No.1 pick in 2001, are mere role players so far.

HELPING HAND. More worrisome to NBA Commissioner David Stern have been a couple of disastrous failures. South Carolina hoopster Taj McDavid declared himself eligible for the 1996 draft, thereby forfeiting his college eligibility. He wasn't nearly good enough to be selected and is now out of organized ball (see BW Online, 6/24/04, ""Fantasy" vs. Fact in the NBA").

A handful of others have also made foolhardy draft declarations, only to be passed over. And Leon Smith, a Chicago high school star, attempted suicide shortly after being drafted in 1999 by the Dallas Mavericks. He has since pieced his life together and was recently invited for some tryouts, but he's thought to be a long shot.

The league is eager to avoid any more such cases and to help drafted teens through their often-bumpy first years. It has added three extra sessions for players under 20 to its mandatory, year-long rookie transition course, starting even before Draft Day. Mike Bantom, NBA senior vice-president for player development, has increased his staff of full-timers from 6 to 11 in the past 3 years, including a clinical psychologist among the new recruits. "None of these kids is quite prepared for how hard they're expected to work," says Bantom. "And a lot of them feel alone on the road."

GAME OVER. His deputy, Chrysa Chin, director of player programs, makes personal visits to each rookie through the year. Trained as a social worker, Chin advises them on matters that 18-year-olds usually don't think about, such as how to pay bills. She keeps in constant touch with a two-way pager, a BlackBerry, and a cell phone. "I'm like a mother with newborns," Chin quips.

In addition, 21 of the 30 pro teams have created staff positions dedicated to young-player development. Bill Wennington, a retired NBA center, works with youngsters on the Chicago Bulls, a team that bet heavily on high schoolers when it acquired 18-year-olds Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry in 2000. "At times [they have] an inability to focus, but it's amazing how much they want to learn," says Wennington. Among his tasks when the Baby Bulls arrived: getting them to stop playing video games until 5 a.m.

The lessons begin even before young players start wending their way up teams' draft boards. Between games at a four-day June camp hosted by the NBA Players' Assn. in Richmond, Va., Oden and 100 other top high school players attended hour-long classes on SAT prep, "sexual decisions," and burnishing the right image. DeNita Turner, a consultant with Image Builders, based in Laurel, Md., drilled the kids about how to leave a proper phone message. One high schooler acted out a scene explaining why his name came up in a police investigation. The lesson: Hanging out with the wrong crowd has consequences.

GAMBLING ON THE FUTURE? But Dwight Howard's Class of '04 could be the last to make the prep-to-pros leap. Basketball's collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of next season, and Stern is pushing for a 20-year-old age limit. Otherwise, "We're going to be faced with a number of kids taking great chances with their futures," the commissioner says.

The players, however, won't raise the age limit without a fight because of the oodles of money at stake. Michael McCann, a sports law expert and Harvard Law School visiting scholar, estimates that under the current accord, a player who jumps to the NBA after high school can add as much as $100 million to his career earnings.

And so far, with the NBA's help, the phenoms seem to be handling the pressure. Just look at last year's instant superstars, Cleveland's Lebron James and Denver's Carmelo Anthony. According to McCann, teenagers have had a much higher success rate than foreign and collegiate draftees, mostly because they make up a tiny group who have been scouted since the age of 12 for their athletic talent.

True, as Stern says, "there's more opportunity for rocket scientists and brain surgeons than there is for NBA players." But those jobs sure don't pay as well. Hindo is a reporter for BusinessWeek in New York


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