NBA's latest round of inflation could lure top underclassmen


Pete Babcock took a short walk from his Atlanta office recently to watch Kenny Anderson, Georgia Tech's sophomore All-America guard, play against Georgia. The new general manager of the Atlanta Hawks was not the only one with that idea.

"I'll bet there were eight to 10 other NBA scouts there to watch him play," said Babcock. "They were from Houston, Dallas, Utah, Denver, Washington and other places."

Anderson made the trip worthwhile for everybody. He scored 40 points, playing all 55 minutes of the Yellow Jackets' 112-105 triple-overtime victory. The scouts were out in force again several days later when Anderson scored 50 against Loyola Marymount.

Anderson is one of four underclassmen, all of whom have been tabbed "franchise players," who might decide to enter the next draft.

A contingent of pro scouts usually is present when Shaquille O'Neal, Louisiana State's 7-foot-2 sophomore center; Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown's 6-10 junior center, and Billy Owens, the 6-9 Syracuse junior forward, plays.

"I've always felt underclassmen should remain in school and mature mentally and physically, but the money that is being tossed around has become so astronomical that it's difficult for anybody to turn it down," Babcock said.

"It has changed the way teams scout. Since you never know which of the underclassmen will renounce their remaining eligibility and enter the draft, even if you don't agree they should, you have to protect yourself and watch them."

For much of last year's college season, general managers, scouts and agents played a guessing game on whether Anderson; Dennis Scott, his Georgia Tech teammate, and Chris Jackson of LSU would enter the draft. Anderson stayed in school; Jackson and Scott did not.

The Denver Nuggets, with the third pick in the draft, took Jackson and signed him to a four-year, $10,025,000 contract. The Orlando Magic, which had the fourth choice, selected Scott. He signed a five-year contract worth $12,428,000.

Speculation is again running rampant that O'Neal, Anderson, Mourning and Owens -- all of whom have been projected as lottery picks if they renounce their remaining college eligibility -- may enter the draft. Although it may be only hopeful talk, there appears to be a strong basis for it.

The opportunities for these players may never be better because teams are also spending large amounts of money to sign free agents and keep their own players. All of this has put many teams over the salary cap. The easiest way to stop the escalation is to limit the free spending for rookies.

The first 10 players selected in last June's draft signed contracts, ranging from four to six years, for an average salary of $1,936,685 a year.

These numbers have helped raise team salaries to near or above this year's salary cap of $11,871,000.

Teams over the cap are not permitted to increase their payrolls through signing new players or making trades. They can raise their payrolls only by restructuring the contracts of players on their roster or by matching offer sheets to their own free agents.

Teams over the cap are also limited to paying their first draft choices the minimum salary, which next year will rise to $180,000. But should O'Neal or any of the others turn pro, they will command salaries in the $2 million- to $3 million-a-year range.

A team that is over the cap but wishes to sign one of the premier players would have to make a trade or release a player to get under the cap.

Under the collective bargaining agreement between the National Basketball Association and the players' union, the players receive 53 percent of the league's gross revenue.

According the NBA's salary information sheet, 10 of the 27 teams were over the cap and another 10 were near it as of Dec. 11.

Willis Reed, the New Jersey Nets' senior vice president of basketball operations, recently back from Las Vegas, where he watched Nevada-Las Vegas' three senior standouts -- Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Anderson Hunt -- and Georgetown's Dikembo Mutombo (Mourning was injured) play, said:

"If I was assured of being one of the top five players in next year's draft, I would come out. From what we hear, the cap will rise by about $1 million dollars a team next year, about half as much as last year."

Reed noted that some players miss out on the big money when they remain in school. He cited Gerald Glass of Mississippi as an example.

"Two years ago, the talk was that Glass was coming out," Reed said. "If he had, he would probably have been a lottery pick, but he waited until last year and wound up the 20th pick. There is a big difference in money between being a lottery pick and the 20th pick."

Glass was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

"I'm not opposed to seeing players paid $2.5 million a year," said Reed. "But I think that sometime in the near future there will have to be certain modification clauses written into contracts when players fail to live up to certain criteria such as points, rebounds, assists, whatever.

"How else can you build your team with the salary cap restrictions if the players you end up signing prove to be non-productive?"

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