- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A clear-cut No. 1 pick won’t be the only thing missing in tonight’s NBA Draft.

For the first time since 1994, no American high school player will be selected in the draft after the NBA included an age-limit restriction in its new collective bargaining agreement a year ago. Now, a player must be a year out of high school and at least 19 years old to be eligible for the draft.

“It will be very beneficial to have high school kids going to college,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said.

But will it benefit a draft in which half a dozen players have been mentioned as the No. 1 pick? The math appears simple. The absence of the high schoolers “diminishes the pool somewhat,” New Jersey Nets general manager Rod Thorn said.

Eight high schoolers were selected in each of the past two drafts, 11 of those in the first round. This year, Greg Oden, a 7-footer from Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, was a near-lock as the top pick. Oden, who recently underwent wrist surgery, will attend Ohio State instead.

Thus, the NBA’s loss is college basketball’s temporary gain. Other high school stars like Kevin Durant, Spencer Hawes and Brandan Wright also were projected as high to middle first-round picks. Now Texas, Washington and North Carolina, respectively, will briefly receive their services.

Many NBA types can’t wait until next year.

“[The draft] has probably been thinned out a little bit,” Houston Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson said. “But next year, we’ll be getting guys one year older, one year more ready to play.”

Grunfeld calls this year’s draft a “hiccup” because “next year, kids will be freshmen and if they’re good enough, they’ll come out.”

Draft expert Chris Monter said he does not expect the lack of high school players to have as big an effect as people think. College underclassmen and even some juniors might have decided to come out this year because Oden and the other high school phenoms can’t.

“There are a good handful of players who thought, ‘Hey, why not come out now instead of waiting one more year?,’” said Monter, editor and publisher of Monter Draft News and College Basketball News. “Why wait another year and compete with those [other] kids?”

Contrary to some, Monter likes the depth in tonight’s draft and said it might prove itself to be a strong one “in three or five years.”

But there is little doubt that too many high school players through the years were not ready for the NBA. As with any talent selection process, the NBA Draft is risky business and even college juniors and seniors, despite their experience and supposed maturity, come with no guarantees. But high schoolers are even more unknown commodities, the occasional Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire notwithstanding. Such players are rare.

The 2005 draft, which included high schoolers like Martell Webster (6.6 points a game, 2.1 rebounds), Andrew Bynum (1.6 ppg, 1.70 rpg) and Gerald Green (5.2 ppg, 1.30 rpg) taken in the first round reflects the common trend.

Perhaps it’s still early.

But it’s not too early to evaluate the infamous 2001 draft, when high school players were picked first, second and fourth. After five seasons, Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry have yet to prove their worth.

The Wizards, of course, made Brown the first high school player ever selected with the first pick. If he ever reaches his potential, it will be with some other team. The Los Angeles Lakers traded for him last summer.

The best players to emerge from the top of the 2001 draft — Pau Gasol (No. 3) and Jason Richardson (No. 5) — had international or college experience.

“You’d like to see them get their education,” Dawson said, meaning at least one year’s worth of college. “There’s such a small percentage [of high school players] that get to play. … It’s hard. Everybody thinks of McGrady, LeBron, Kobe. Those are rare people. It’s hard to take a 17- or 18-year-old young man and figure out if he can play in this league. You’ve still got a problem taking a 19- or 20-year-old.”

Still, Grunfeld called this year’s draft a little less risky “because we have more time to evaluate, we have more to go by. We have older, better prepared players coming out.”

TNT commentator Steve Kerr said: “Teams don’t have to take as big of a gamble. They’re gonna get a chance to look at them for a year, which is nice. Long term, I’m hoping guys will develop better with a year of college, get more playing time and even stick around for a couple of years.”

Charlotte Bobcats scouting director Kenny Williamson agrees.

“When you deal with college players who have been around two or three years, you have more information. I’m not a proponent of high school players anyway.”

Williamson said scouts will continue to check out high school players at summer camps sponsored by Nike and other companies. But rather than visit high school gyms this winter, he spent more time in Europe.

“I’ve seen more polished, mature players,” he said. “The draft is more different in that regard. But it’s still wide open.”

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