To keep up with LeBron James - former star of Akron's St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, last year's No. 1 pick of the NBA draft, beneficiary of a $90 million endorsement contract and Rookie of the Year with the Cleveland Cavaliers - doesn't exactly require a search party. His fame might explain the unprecedented rush of high school talent going pro, with the league receiving notice of plans to enter next month's NBA draft from 13 players.
To keep up with James Lang - the fifth and last player the league drafted out of high school - is a challenge in his current job with the Oklahoma Storm of the United States Basketball League. Lang, former star of Birmingham's Central Park Christian High, was last year's No. 48 pick of the New Orleans Hornets. In midseason, he was picked up briefly by the National Basketball Development League's Asheville (N.C.) Altitude.
Whatever trappings of stardom have come to Lang through his leap into pro basketball, they don't extend to voicemail at the motel in Enid, Okla., where the Storm stays when the team is not criss-crossing the country to venues ranging from Brooklyn to Dodge City to keep the players' hoop dreams alive.
"I hope they're making the right decision," Lang said of this year's crop of high school entries, ranging from potential top pick Dwight Howard of Atlanta to Tacoma, Wash., unknown Maurice Shaw. "Everyone's doubting you, and that's going to be hard. You just have to use that as a motivation."
In Enid, the operator at the hotel housing Lang answers, "Motel 6," followed by "reservations," the latter a fitting term to describe the discourse regarding high school players skipping college basketball to earn professional money.
Players like Lang stand in contrast to the success achieved by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal, all of whom jumped past college basketball and are now considered among the top 10 players in the NBA.
It would be kind to call on-court beginnings modest for the other three high schoolers drafted in last year's first round. Boston's Kendrick Perkins, Minnesota's Ndudi Ebi and Portland's Travis Outlaw combined to appear in 35 games, indicating that not everyone had the impact that James did, and making executives such as Ernie Grunfeld, general manager of the Washington Wizards, hope for change.
"I think everyone should get the college experience, for the maturity - not just physically, but also emotionally," said Grunfeld, whose roster includes Kwame Brown, a high school star who joined the Wizards as the league's top pick in 2001.
Brown's minutes have increased in each of his three seasons, but he is still seen as an unfinished product. "He might have been rushed, but that's what we're dealing with. Maybe he could have benefited from a developmental situation in college. Everyone has their own pace," Grunfeld said.
This year's fringe candidates appear to be Maurice Shaw, a 6-10 forward who played a fifth year of high school ball in Maine, and Jackie Butler, a 6-10 power forward from McComb, Miss., a Tennessee signee dismissed from Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute.
Seeking age minimum
Though players can test the draft and try college if they don't sign with an agent, "a lot of these guys are going to be hurt," said Chicago-based agent Keith Kreiter. "If a kid is thought of as being a sure-fire pick, then I see no reason he shouldn't be allowed to make the jump. But it should be handled properly, because if it's not, they're giving up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Concerned about the issues surrounding high school players, the league has begun a quest for an age minimum, probably 20, on which it hopes to find agreement with the National Basketball Players Association.
NBA commissioner David Stern proposes a ban, "not because I don't think that LeBron, Kobe, Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal can't play," he told the New York Post earlier this month. "I'm just not sure I feel the ones who can't are being properly led by what we do."
For the moment, Lang, cousin of former Duke player and NBA journeyman Antonio Lang, is satisfied with the counsel that eventually guided him to Enid, where the wind alternated with the "yessirs" through his cell phone during a recent conversation.
After a year that has included being released by the Hornets and the Altitude, the 6-10, 320-pound center said he has achieved much, even though not as much as he wished. He was averaging 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds in 19.5 minutes for the Storm in eight games.
"It's been blessful," he said, shortly before an afternoon practice. "I've been able to show what I can do. There's a lot I've learned by watching others and myself."
Not everyone would label a career path such as Lang's an automatic bust. It isn't, according to Michael McCann, a visiting scholar/researcher at Harvard Law School who recently wrote a law review article, "Illegal Defense: The Irrational Economics of Banning High School Players from the NBA Draft." The article contends "high school athletes who enter the NBA draft are a small, self-selected group, comprised almost entirely of exceptionally talented players."
Starting with Darryl Dawkins in 1975, 20 of 29 high school entries to the NBA draft were first-round picks, garnering guaranteed contracts that would be worth a minimum of about $2.7 million to those who are selected next month, concludes the article, published by McCann in the Virginia Sports and Entertainment Law Journal.
In fact, unrestrained success could come to some of this year's group, like the reportedly ultra- skilled 6-10 Howard and Shaun Livingston of Peoria, Ill., a 6-7 point guard who would otherwise play for Duke this winter. Both players are expected to be taken within the first five picks.
Another player, undersized Sebastian Telfair, has already cashed in on New York City hype and his pedigree (cousin of star guard Stephon Marbury). Adidas has given Telfair an eight-figure sneaker deal before his graduation from high school. The company has also guaranteed a similar sum to another Atlantan, 6-9 forward Josh Smith.
The financial motivation alone might be enough for those talented enough to be considered, as even disappointments like Korleone Young - who currently plays in China - are making well beyond the median income of $41,000 for new college graduates. Lang pocketed roughly $150,000 for his short period with the Hornets, which amounted to four exhibition games before he had back spasms and was released.
And while on-court progress is expected to come slowly for most players lacking experience, it may eventually bloom, as evidenced by O'Neal. He started 18 games over his first four years for a talented Portland team before joining Indiana, where he has missed only 21 starts over the past four years.
"Even if you're struggling, you're cultivating the skills to play in the NBA," McCann said. "There's value in playing NBA players every day. Jermaine O'Neal shows that - he was obviously doing something."
However, others say the league shouldn't be in the patience business, asserting high school players need seasoning elsewhere, whether it be the traditional path of college basketball or the NBDL, a minor league the NBA started in 2002.
With the NBA expanding by one team this season, it is also mulling an expansion of the NBDL, from six to 16 teams, though that would be subject to collective bargaining. At this point, the union is reluctant to allow a quasi-farm system wherein NBA teams would have the right to send unprepared players to the NBDL, instead of cutting them and releasing their rights entirely.
High-level teens can benefit from the NBDL - with its 46-game schedules and rosters of former college stars - but NBDL player personnel executive Chris Alpert says college is often the better option. "If they have the opportunity to go, I think that's what they should do," he said. "It offers so much more beyond the basketball aspect."
Lang said he has some perspective, having conversations with his mother, Wanda Harris, about pursuing his education somewhere this fall. "Basketball won't be there forever," he said. At the same time, his focus is on the target that led him to forgo classes in the first place.
Beyond the Storm, he hopes to link up with a Memphis Grizzlies summer league team. If he can drop enough weight, wanting to get down to 280 pounds, he might accomplish the goal he set when he made the Hornets.
"People doubted me, said I'm not ready," he said. "I made the roster. It was a way of saying I can do anything."
Prep to pro
Player School Draft status
Ndudi Ebi Westbury Christian (Texas) HS Drafted first round by Minnesota
LeBron James St. Vincent-St. Mary (Ohio) HS Drafted first round by Cleveland
James Lang Central Park Christian (Ala.) HS Drafted second round by New Orleans; now with USBL's Oklahoma Storm
Travis Outlaw Starkville (Miss.) HS Drafted first round by Portland
Kendrick Perkins Ozen (Texas) HS Drafted first round by Boston
Amare Stoudemire Cypress Creek (Fla.) HS Drafted first round by Phoenix
Lenny Cooke Mott Adult (Mich.) HS Ruptured his Achilles' tendon playing this season in the Philippine Basketball Association
DeAngelo Collins Inglewood (Calif.) HS Philippine Basketball Association
Tony Key Centennial (Calif.) HS Undrafted; Finished second season at L.A. City College
DeSagana Diop Oak Hill Academy (Va.) Drafted first round by Cleveland
Eddy Curry Thornwood (Ill.) HS Drafted first round by Chicago
Ousmane Cisse St. Jude (Ala.) HS Drafted in second round by Denver; now with USBL's Brevard Blue Ducks
Tyson Chandler Dominguez (Calif.) HS Drafted first round by Clippers; traded to Chicago same day
Kwame Brown Glynn Academy (Ga.) Drafted first round by Washington
Darius Miles East St. Louis, (Ill.) HS Drafted first round by L.A. Clippers; currently with Portland
DeShawn Stevenson Washington Union (Calif.) HS Drafted first round by Utah
Jonathan Bender Picayune (Miss.) HS Drafted first round by Toronto; currently with Indiana
Leon Smith King (Ill.) HS Drafted first round by San Antonio; same-day trade to Dallas. Now with Seattle
Al Harrington St. Patrick's (N.J.) HS Drafted first round by Indiana
Rashard Lewis Alief Elsik (Texas) HS Drafted second round by Seattle
Ellis Richardson Polytechnic (Calif.) HS Undrafted; out of basketball
Korleone Young Hargrave Military Academy (Va.) Drafted second round by Detroit; currently playing in China
Tracy McGrady Mt. Zion Christian Academy (N.C.) Drafted first round by Toronto; currently with Orlando
Kobe Bryant Lower Merion (Pa.) HS Drafted first round by Charlotte (now New Orleans); currently with Lakers
Taj McDavid Palmetto (S.C.) HS Undrafted; out of basketball
Jermaine O'Neal Eau Claire (S.C.) HS Drafted first round by Portland; currently with Indiana
Kevin Garnett Farragut Academy (Ill.) Drafted first round by Minnesota
Darryl Dawkins Evans (Fla.) HS Drafted first round by Philadelphia; also played for New Jersey, Utah and Detroit
Bill Willoughby Dwight Morrow (N.J.) HS Drafted first round by Atlanta; also played for Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston, San Antonio and New Jersey