The NBA Draft is tonight as the league ushers in a new class of celebrated rookies. The top selections will sit in the green room with their entourages waiting for their names to be called, then walk to the podium in their custom-designed suits -- free of charge, of course -- and don a baseball cap with their new team's logo (which never matches the custom suit) and shake the hand of NBA Commissioner David Stern who will be looking up from a foot below.
Most of the top players picked tonight will have spent the past year -- and ONLY the past year -- in college, purportedly attending classes and working on their education when playing and practicing basketball didn't get in the way. Indeed, the only reason they were in college this past year is due a rule forged by the NBA, the NBA Players Association and the NCAA requiring at least one year removed from high school for a player to be eligible to play in the NBA.
The rationale most often articulated for this rule is that players need to be more "mature" and better equipped for the rigors of the NBA. Meanwhile, much of the relevant data on the issue suggests otherwise. The two most transcendent players in basketball -- Kobe Bryant and LeBron James -- came to the league directly from high school (prior to the present rule), as did freshly crowned NBA champion Celtic players Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins and unique talents such as Tracy McGrady or Dwight Howard. In fact, it is increasingly difficult to find players in today's game who have completed four years of college basketball.
Despite the rhetoric about young players not being ready or not mature enough to handle the rigors of the NBA, the teams' actions suggest otherwise. Tonight's draft will prove the point, as likely top selections will include Derrick Rose (freshman, age 19), Michael Beasley (freshman, 19), O.J. Mayo (freshman, 20), Eric Gordon (freshman, 19), Jerryd Bayless (freshman, 19), and Kevin Love (freshman, 19). This is not an aberration; this is a trend. The top two picks of last year's draft, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, were also one-and-done players who would have been top picks out of high school in 2006 but for the one-year removed rule. Thus, despite lip service about wanting more mature and seasoned players, NBA general managers are going for youth and potential over college basketball experience.
The indignation about basketball players going from high school directly to the NBA is curious, especially at this time in the sports calendar. Tiger Woods, the most compelling athlete in sports, is on the shelf for several months with a reconstructed knee. Woods went to college, and to a very good one (Stanford) but left to turn professional after one year, as did another Stanford athlete named John McEnroe.
Speaking of McEnroe, Wimbledon is now in full swing with virtually all of the top players having spent little time in high school, let alone college. Many of the players at the top of the recently completed baseball and hockey drafts are fresh out of high school and on their way to the minor leagues to play professionally
Even beyond athletes, the idea of a rule requiring young talents to forego income-producing and productive careers seems outlandish in other venues. Would a virtuoso musician be required to attend college or wait a year before joining a symphony? Would a beyond-his-or-her-years entrepreneurial or creative mind have to wait out a year rather than take his ideas and talents to the marketplace if there were a demand? Of course not.
Why, then, is there so much noise about these basketball players (and football, although that is a topic for another day) foregoing college at their first opportunity to play professionally? What is different about basketball than baseball, hockey, tennis, golf, or academic or creative talent? One would hope the attention given to basketball players busting out of college at the first opportunity would be no different than the other examples above, yet it appears to be for reasons that are unclear.
The NBA is a private and highly successful venture; they have their rules and are within their rights to do so. Time will also tell whether potential litigation or news that a high school phenom may be considering playing in Europe for a year --Prep standout Brandon Jennings - will have far-reaching implications.
For now, however, when these basketball prodigies strut across the floor to meet their new boss, Commissioner Stern, one can only wonder if one of them will ask why he had to be somewhere he didn't want to for year before donning that team cap.