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Teen angst

NBA grappling with divisive issue of age minimum

When the NBA Draft lottery takes place tonight in Secaucus, N.J., there will be the usual nervous glances and forced smiles. General managers, directors of basketball operations, and owners will fidget while sitting behind small podiums with team logos posted on the front. The hot glare of television lights will only make things more uncomfortable.

Collecting the NBA version of a consolation prize inevitably produces awkward moments among the representatives of the 14 worst teams, who gather for a shot at dramatic improvement with one Ping-Pong ball. In theory, the NBA curbs a large amount of the suspense by weighting the odds in favor of the teams with the poorest records.

The real uncertainty lies in the weeks that follow, the weeks leading up to the draft. That is when teams must decide whether to pin the hopes of the franchise on a recent high school graduate. Visions of Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James come to mind. The cautionary tales of Bill Willoughby and Leon Smith often are dismissed. Selecting a high school phenom can be a very exciting futures game, even if it takes years for the investment to pay dividends.

But if commissioner David Stern has his way, the futures game as it applies to teenagers will become a part of the past. He has long advocated an age limit that would make players under 20 ineligible for the draft. The issue has emerged as one of the key considerations for the upcoming collective bargaining agreement, though it is far from a stumbling block in the negotiations, which broke off May 18. Still, it remains such a hot-button topic that many general managers declined to discuss it, though some talked generally about the pros and cons of drafting under-20 players. (The league sent teams a memo asking them not to discuss issues related to the collective bargaining agreement.)

''Lots of jobs have requirements that make for an older workforce," said Stern recently. ''This is a personal project of mine. A few points: One, we already have a minimum age, 18, dating back to 1976. Two, it is time to tell the communities that we serve that the sixth-grader, as Arthur Ashe used to say, is far more likely to be a rocket scientist, biology professor, etc., than a pro athlete. Three, I want to get NBA scouts out of high school gyms. It sends the wrong message for them to be there. Where does it stop? Four, older players can deal better with the stress and grind of the unique NBA season. Five, it is a business matter. A draft pick is a big investment. It is better to see a return in less than two years.

''But with all that said, it is a hard issue. Everyone can be right in this one."

An easy compromise appears to be an under-19 restriction that would still allow many high school players to enter the draft. Al Jefferson turned 19 almost six months before Boston made him the No. 15 pick in the 2004 draft. With the lottery tonight and the June 28 draft fast approaching, discussion of an age limit will keep the focus on how the youngest players in the NBA develop and adjust to the pressures of a professional sports career straight out of high school.

Each case is unique
Of the 25 players selected in the first round out of high school since Garnett was taken fifth overall by Minnesota in 1995, 24 remain in the league. (Smith is the exception.) That's an impressive number. But for every Amare Stoudemire, who helped lead Phoenix to the best record in the NBA this season, there is a Kwame Brown, who was suspended by the Wizards for ''philosophical reasons" and missed most of Washington's two playoff series. His future with the franchise remains uncertain, though many observers believe Brown still has a promising NBA career ahead of him.

This year, of the 108 players who filed for early-entry status, 12 are coming out of high school (35 are international players). They all have dreams of superstardom and lucrative endorsements, but it is easy to forget how long it can take young players to develop. Jermaine O'Neal, who was selected 17th overall in the 1996 draft at 17 years old, did not realize his All-Star potential until being traded from Portland to Indiana in 2000. Certainly, it helped that O'Neal saw his minutes increase from 12.3 per game in his last season with the Trail Blazers to 32.6 in his first season with the Pacers.

''Every player is different with their mental, emotional, and physical maturity," said Celtics executive director of basketball operations Danny Ainge. ''Some players may sit and some may play. When everybody is judging who did well in the draft, usually players who get the opportunity to play [appear to be the best selections]. Lots of rookies exceed expectations while some take longer than expected.

''It's not difficult to project with some players at any age. You can look at some 16-year-olds and say, 'He's going to be very good in the NBA.' You have to look at players on an individual basis to evaluate their future. Their age and level of competition isn't always a [determining] factor. When teams saw Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki and LeBron James and Kevin Garnett, they knew they were going to be very good players. No one knew how long it would take them.

''Also, you can have a college All-American and see he's not going to be good in the pros. People get in trouble when they start categorizing by ages and awards they've gotten. Every player is so unique, you've got to be careful of avoiding that."

The blanket categorization of players under 20 as too young seems to bother current players and Players Association executive director Billy Hunter. O'Neal went so far as to call an age limit racist. Union representatives see the barring of teenagers as a money-saving move by ownership. Players who head straight from high school to the NBA could potentially sign two maximum contracts. Not so for players who enter the league in their early 20s. This discussion, however, becomes moot if the length of maximum contracts changes from the current seven years to, say, five years. That has become another contentious issue at the negotiating table.

A 'three-year' theory
In the end, it all comes down to how teams develop young talent. Some teams and coaches are in a position to show more patience than others. Just ask Darko Milicic, who has seldom played since being selected No. 2 overall by the Pistons in the 2003 draft behind James.

''From a skill standpoint, it would be better for kids to get the college experience and improve their game before getting to the NBA," said Charlotte coach/general manager Bernie Bickerstaff, who drafted University of Connecticut standout Emeka Okafor No. 2 overall in 2004. ''There are a lot of excellent college coaches out there who could be beneficial to players before they enter the NBA. It would make our jobs easier because the players would be better equipped. If you're going to draft young players, coaches must show patience -- that's the most important thing.

''I believe it's a three-year program for any drafted players to be a solid contributor in the NBA, provided he is allowed to play and get minutes. Obviously, some players develop faster than that. What team a player gets drafted by also has a part. Coming into a veteran team could lengthen that timeline, whereas coming to an expansion team could make the development faster."

Stern would like to see teams make better use of the National Basketball Development League, which he considers the NBA's minor league. He would like to see the NBDL function much the way the minor leagues do in baseball and hockey, where teams can send players down to gain experience.

But as more and more teenagers enter the draft, teams appear increasingly adept at gauging potential and preparing for the adjustment period. They are more apt to exercise patience.

Stern cannot undo the influence of James and Stoudamire and Garnett on the choices of current high school players and NBA executives. While the odds of becoming or selecting a superstar are not always favorable, it's a game teenagers and teams seem very willing to play.

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