- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Ha Seung-Jin is symptomatic of the new NBA, the first of his kind from South Korea, yet as riddled with questions as the record eight American prep players selected in the first round of the draft last week.

The 18-year-old Ha was perhaps the most intriguing second-round footnote of the draft, taken with the 46th pick by the Trail Blazers, while being accompanied by the doubts that go with being one year removed from a South Korean high school.

Ha is both a curiosity piece and a signal that the cultural shift is complete.

The old basketball establishment has fought the NBA since the drafting of Kevin Garnett in 1995, and the new NBA has won.

The high school/college argument is moot, so ‘90s, as the four college seniors tabbed in the first round could tell. They stayed in college at the risk of their draft position.

No one could have been more insulted or confused than Jameer Nelson, the St. Joseph’s point guard who slipped to No. 20 in the draft after being selected the college Player of the Year last season. He fell behind the eight prep stars, their long-term potential deemed more compelling than their capacity to make an immediate contribution.

The NBA came down on the side of potential in all too many cases, starting with Orlando’s decision to select high school player Dwight Howard with the No. 1 pick overall instead of Emeka Okafor, who was coming off a national championship season at Connecticut.

Howard has been labeled the next Garnett or Kwame Brown, the gamble clear enough and a reflection of where the NBA is.

David Stern is inclined to end the NBA’s ever-growing mission as a minor league, either with a minimum age or a more useful developmental league. A preponderance of those lacking in fundamentals is bad for business, notably with too many of the playoff entries from the Eastern Conference.

Yet the NBA’s message to the young remains firm.

As Stanford junior Josh Childress put it: “The more years you stay in school, the more opportunity the NBA people have to pick you apart. At the same time, it pays to go to school to develop and get mature.”

His qualifier is no homage to a college education, the last refuge of the old basketball establishment, just an acknowledgement of the vast physical differences between a high school senior and a college junior.

The 29-player breakdown of the first round featured eight high school players, eight college juniors, six international players, four college seniors and a couple of partridges from a mostly bare tree.

The NBA’s quest to leave no appealing body behind now extends to another improbable basketball outpost in Asia, to the 7-foot-3, 305-pound Ha, of Seoul.

He is said to have Yao Ming-like qualities, a natural comparison, though not necessarily accurate.

Yao was the next Rik Smits until it was determined he could be so much more.

Ha’s high school coach lends the typical voice of support.

“Even with such imposing height, he is nimble and shrewd, keying rallies at both ends of the court,” Lee Yun-hwan said. “He can play a game all the way through without losing his wind.”

A point guard who played with Ha on the South Korean national team questioned the maturity level of Ha to the Korea Times.

The point guard recalled the time the coach hurt Ha’s feelings during practice.

“He ran outside and wept, saying, ‘I can’t do that.’” Kim Seung-hyun said. “That was not even all that harsh. But, of course, it could be to a boy like him.”

It seems Ha already has met one of the challenges of the NBA, considering the high number of crybabies who labor under the Jerry West logo.

The oldest crybabies are the coaches.

Nothing is guaranteed to a second-round pick, neither the scaled-down money nor a roster spot.

Ha is seeking to have the last laugh.

He is halfway there, with one Ha awaiting a second Ha.

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