Pay your (college) dues

The new NBA age limit is a passionately debated subject. Everything from the racial aspects to the legality of the measure has been called into question. Regardless of the roots of the matter, the age limit will end up being for the best, for all parties involved.

This year’s crop of college hoopsters was lush with talented players who could step in and make an immediate impact. Despite this, draft day saw several multi-million dollar contracts handed out to teenagers whose last full-court press involved finding a prom date.

Last year’s draft saw eight players plucked from the high school ranks, as more and more teams roll the dice in an effort to find their own Kobe Bryants and Jermaine O’Neals. Can you blame them? Damon Stoudamire was drafted in the same year as Kevin Garnett. Two years ago, while Garnett was winning an MVP en route to a deep playoff run, Stoudamire was entertaining the idea of a front-office job with the Portland Trail Blazers.

It seems simple enough: expose a guy to the rigors of the NBA four years early and get four extra years of service out of them. This is the conventional logic among NBA general managers, but is it really all that logical?

There have been 30 players drafted out of high school since Kevin Garnett was taken with the fifth pick of the 1995 NBA Draft. Of those 30 players, exactly one (Kobe Bryant) has had any sort of impact on a championship basketball team, and he had the benefit of Shaquille O’Neal at center. To be fair, only five different teams have won the title since the 1986-’87 season. Even then, no high school player has so much as seen the NBA Finals (save the aforementioned Kobe Bryant.)

It’s not for lack of statistical prowess that so many high school players find themselves watching the later rounds of the playoffs from a recliner – stat lines are dominated by players who shrugged off college. The problem with high school players cannot be found in Kevin Garnett, LeBron James or Amare Stoudemire. These are diamonds in the rough, players so talented and driven that they are destined to succeed.

The problem with high school players manifests itself in the likes of Ousmane Cisse, Leon Smith, Korleone Young and Kwame Brown, who become false prophets of potential, that end up rotting in some developmental league or eating up precious cap space. James Lang, a 6-10 behemoth of a man was taken in the second round by the New Orleans Hornets in 2003. Had he gone to college, he would have just concluded his sophomore year. Instead he finds himself bouncing from 14-day contract to 14-day contract with no relief in sight.

A few years spent in the NCAA are by no means a guarantee that a player will succeed in the NBA. After all, ex-Blazer J.R. Rider spent a couple of years at UNLV and dunced his way out of the league. A stint in college does, however, add priceless dimension to one’s game. Regardless of how many AAU and high school games a kid plays in, he’ll never receive the quality of coaching that is offered at the collegiate level. College ball also helps to drive home the importance of the team.

High school basketball programs are a breeding ground for egocentricity. To many of these coaches, these players are the best things that will ever happen to their program. That lanky 6-10 swingman who drops 24 points a night on some kid who has to hurry home to finish his algebra homework might as well be Michael Jordan and is treated in kind. But try telling Roy Williams you’re the best player he’s ever had the pleasure of coaching.

Imagine if any number of these phenoms had attended college. Imagine Darius Miles with two years of Tubby Smith defense programmed into his game. Imagine Kwame Brown with three years of collegiate maturity (both physical and mental.) Imagine Ndudi Ebi and Robert Smith fighting for their 12th rebound of the night, rather than their 12th minute of court time. With the new NBA labor deal, now we won’t have to imagine.