Wednesday, April 28, 2004
LeBron's success may lead others to try NBA draft pool
By JEFF D'ALESSIO
He saved basketball in Cleveland, became a one-man marketing machine and accomplished feats only Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson did as rookies.
For his next trick, LeBron James may ruin college basketball and the NBA as we know them.
"I'm worried that the success of LeBron will elevate expectations for high schoolers who follow," said Danny Ainge, the Boston Celtics' director of basketball operations. "LeBron is very special. The norm is more like Jonathan Bender, Al Harrington or Jermaine O'Neal."
So far, a pair of high school basketball stars - Dwight Howard of Atlanta and Josh Smith of Virginia's Oak Hill Academy - have declared their intentions to bypass college and go pro, like James did last year and Bender, Harrington and O'Neal did before him.
But many more are expected to follow suit between now and the May 11 deadline, including New York City point guard Sebastian Telfair.
Telfair stands 5-foot-11. No player so short has ever made the jump from the prom to the pros.
"I have seen a number of players who are supposedly coming into the draft and just scratch my head," Memphis Grizzlies general manager Jerry West said. "I don't know where they're getting their advice."
West built a reputation as the best talent evaluator in the business while putting together championship Los Angeles Laker teams. In 1996, he traded for the draft rights to a Pennsylvania prep prospect named Kobe Bryant, who didn't turn out half-bad (Bryant, amazingly, fell to No. 13 that year - two spots behind no-name Todd Fuller).
But for every Kobe, LeBron and Kevin Garnett, there's a Kwame Brown, who went No. 1 overall to Washington three years ago and is yet to develop into the star the Wizards - and Jordan - thought he'd be when they spent a top pick on him.
And now that James - and Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire before him - showed that immediate success can be had, the two each winning the NBA Rookie of the Year award, the league is becoming a more viable option than ever in the eyes of top prep prospects.
It's killing basketball at the college and pro levels, West says, and it's a big reason why NBA commissioner David Stern has lobbied for a draft age minimum of 20, along the lines of the NFL's rule that players must be three years out of high school to be picked.
"Do I wish it were more like the NFL Draft?" West asked. "I guess to some degree I would. ... I would certainly like to see an age limit. I don't think it's good for professional basketball and it's certainly not good for college basketball. We almost have gotten to the point where we're the development league, not the collegiate programs."
The No. 1 pick in last weekend's NFL Draft was a polished, 23-year-old four-year college star who's expected to come right in and start at quarterback in the biggest media market in America.
The No. 1 pick in June's NBA Draft could be an 18-year-old from a Georgia Class 1A high school whose coach says he could turn out to be a Garnett or Tim Duncan type - "in five, six, maybe seven years at the most."
But does the franchise that drafts the 6-foot-11 Howard - Orlando, Atlanta, Chicago or one of the other losing teams in the lottery - have that long to wait?
"Poor teams get to draft the cream of the crop, so to speak," West said. "The cream of the crop today seems to be high school kids. So I guess what you're telling fans is, 'We've got three or four more years that we're going to be bad because we're continuing to draft very young players. But one of these days, we're going to be pretty good.'
"I don't think that's a great message to send the respective fans in cities where the teams are not prospering."
If Howard goes No. 1 overall this year - he and Connecticut junior Emeka Okafor are considered the leading candidates in a draft that lacks the star power of Yao Ming or James - it would mark the second time in three years that the top pick came straight out of high school.
James, the former Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary's schoolboy sensation, obviously panned out. Brown, the former Brunswick (Ga.) Glynn Academy star who in 2001 became the first high school player ever to go No. 1 to the NBA, hasn't.
Without an age limit restriction - something the NBA Players Association opposes - Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Jim Paxson thinks it's "more likely" teams will spend the No. 1 pick on a high school player with a big upside than a proven college star.
"Our draft is more like baseball and hockey than it used to be," Portland Trail Blazers general manager John Nash said. "It used to be more like football, where you draft a player after three or four years of college and he was closer to being able to contribute."
Of course, there's still hope for Brown, who three years into his pro career is averaging an unremarkable 7.8 points and 5.6 rebounds a night.
Just look at Tracy McGrady. Before the former Durham (N.C.) Mount Zion Christian Academy star became an NBA scoring champion in Orlando, he spent three years coming off the bench in Toronto, where he averaged 11.0 points a night - not quite the 28.1 he's put up in four seasons with the Magic.
Look at O'Neal. Before he was an All-Star in Indiana, the ex-Eau Claire (S.C.) High standout pouted in Portland, where in four seasons he started a total of 18 games and never averaged more than 4.5 points.
Look at Kobe. As good as the pride of Lower Merion (Pa.) High has been lately, it wasn't until his third NBA season that he cracked the Lakers' starting lineup.
And, along with James, he was the most prepared-for-the-pros prep prospect Nash has ever scouted.
"It's very hit and miss," Trail Blazers president Steve Patterson said, "even with the players who get drafted."
Since 1995, when Chicago Farragut's Garnett became the first player to make the preps-to-pros jump since Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins in the 1970s, 27 high schoolers have declared for the draft.
Six went unselected, forfeiting their college basketball eligibility (Players can withdraw from the draft by June 17 without losing their eligibility, provided they haven't signed with an agent).
Four went in the second round, including Ousmanne Cisse, who now makes a living for the Brevard Blue Ducks of the United States Basketball League.
Eighteen went in the first round, with varying results.
While James went on to become the NBA Rookie of the Year, three fellow first-rounders didn't share his success. Travis Outlaw (Portland, No. 23) played a total of 19 minutes as a rookie. Ndubi Ebi (Minnesota, No. 26) played 32. Kendrick Perkins (No. 27, Memphis) got in for 35.
Among them, they scored 43 points - two more than James had against the New Jersey Nets in one game in March.
Stoudemire has been a success story in Phoenix, but what about the other two prep members of the Class of 2002? DeAngelo Collins and Lenny Cooke were last seen playing in the PBA - that is, the Philippine Basketball Association.
A record four prep players went among the top 10 picks in 2001, but none has had the impact of some of the college and international stars who also went in that draft - Richard Jefferson, Pau Gasol, Jamaal Tinsley, Tony Parker.
Brown, the top pick, averaged 10.9 points with the Wizards as a third-year pro. Tyson Chandler, the No. 2 selection, put up 6.1 a night coming off the Chicago Bulls' bench. Eddy Curry, No. 4, showed flashes this season, averaging 14.7 points, but not dominating, as many thought the 6-foot-11, 285-pounder would. DeSagana Diop, No. 8, has been DeSagana Flop in Cleveland, where he's yet to average more than 2.3 points.
The jury's still out on the Class of 2000. Darius Miles, taken third overall by the Los Angeles Clippers, finally seems to be coming into his own in his third NBA city, Portland, while DeShawn Stevenson is coming off his first double-digit scoring season, which he split between Utah and Orlando.
"Now he's a free agent," Portland's Nash said. "Does he become a bona fide NBA starter or is he a journeyman?"
That's what they're wondering in Indiana about Bender, the MVP of the 1999 McDonald's All-American Game who went No. 5 in the draft. His scoring average in this year's playoffs - 10 points - is two more than he's put up in any of his five pro seasons.
Still, that's better than San Antonio got from Leon Smith, the No. 29 pick who attempted suicide and was out of the league before resurfacing this season in Seattle.
"Bender and Leon Smith, I don't think anyone's doing back flips over those two guys," Patterson said.
The Class of 1998 produced two solid pros (Al Harrington is a top reserve in Indiana and Rashard Lewis is a go-to guy in Seattle) and two definite nos (Korleone Young and Ellis Richardson never made it).
McGrady (1997) and Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal (1996) each developed into All-Stars in time.
"What I would like to see is all kids go to college," said Courtney Brooks, who coaches Howard at Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy. "The benefits of going to college are so much greater than you sitting on the bench for a year or two and then playing.
"Yeah, you can be in the NBA. Yeah, you can get a check. But you're going to sit. You can't get better if you don't play."
A look at which high school players are in the draft and who's still thinking about it:
Dwight Howard, 6-11 F, Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy
Josh Smith, 6-8 F, Oak Hill (Va.) Academy
Al Jefferson, 6-9 F, Prentiss (Miss.) High
Shaun Livingston, 6-7 G, Peoria (Ill.) Central
Randolph Morris, 6-11 C, Fairburn (Ga.) High
J.R. Smith, 6-5 G, Newark (N.J.) St. Benedict Prep
Robert Swift, 7-0 C, Bakersfield High (Calif.) High
Sebastian Telfair, 5-11 G, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Lincoln
Dorrell Wright, 6-7 F, South Kent (Conn.) Prep
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