In NBA, 19 has become hot number

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RICHMOND, Va. - Dwight Howard has had a pretty good year.

Last June, he went from high school all-star to the NBA's No. 1 overall pick, and then, as a teenage power forward for the Orlando Magic, he proved himself a world-class rebounder, a promising scorer and a man who would steer clear of anything resembling trouble.

Yesterday, Howard recounted the thrills of battling his idol, Kevin Garnett, to the best high school players in the land, those who would succeed him on the fast track to pro glory. He warned the young stars - attending a camp in Richmond sponsored by the NBA players union - about the dangers of loose women and the rigors of an 82-game schedule.

"Stick with the game," he told them, "because it will never do you wrong."

But if NBA commissioner David Stern has his way, Howard might be the last high schooler to be drafted No. 1. As part of a six-year collective bargaining agreement reached by the league and the players union Tuesday, those under age 19 will not be eligible for the draft. American players must also be a year out of high school to be eligible.

Stern says the rule will improve the league's reputation by keeping pro scouts out of high school gyms and encouraging young players to mature in college. But a collection of high school stars, scouts, former pros and college coaches give the age minimum more mixed reviews.

Some say it will give kids an all-important extra year to grow up. Some say it will hamper the rights of gifted individuals. Still others say the rule won't apply to enough players to make much difference.

Howard, who might know as well as anybody, said he has mixed feelings. He said he understands the league's position "because we got a lot of knuckleheads coming in, and they're not looking for guys to come in and destroy the NBA."

But, he added, he's glad he made it in under the wire instead of being forced to play a year of college ball. "I don't feel they should put an age limit on guys who are ready," he said. "I was ready."

So were LeBron James and to a lesser extent, Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. Cincinnati's O.J. Mayo, rated by many the top player in the class of 2007, figures he might be ready, too.

Mayo will be 19 when he graduates high school, but because of the rule that says the player must also be a year out of high school, he will not be eligible for the 2007 draft.

"If you're going to do it for basketball, do it for all sports," said the guard, whose quicksilver moves and physical maturity draw comparisons to James. "There should not be a spotlight on basketball."

The rule may prove good for the league but unfair to some players, said Gerald Henderson Jr., a rising Pennsylvania senior whose father played in the NBA. Henderson, who has signed with Duke, has the sculpted arms and calves of a pro athlete, and he speaks with a poise that belies his years.

"It depends on the kid," he said of a leap to the pros. "It's not just a given age, but if you're physically and mentally ready to do it, then you should be able to do it."

Power forward Darrell Arthur of Houston is one of the top players in the first class that will deal with the rule. He seems to encompass all of the competing arguments about young players. He's 6 feet 9, and he springs above the rim quickly and effortlessly. But he drifted aimlessly at times yesterday and once flashed a goofy grin after he missed a tomahawk jam - fine for a youth camp but not very NBA.

Arthur will be 18 when the 2006 draft rolls around, so he definitely won't be in it. That's fine for him, he said, because he wants to attend college. But that doesn't mean the rule seems fair.

"If you're good enough to go and you're ready to go, you should be able to go," he said.

Most high schoolers asked said the rule would drive them to college rather than to Europe, prep school or the NBA Developmental League.

"You never can stop learning," Mayo said. "In college, you have a lot of conflicts, a lot of media attention, and everyone is working hard. There's definitely a lot to learn there."

Former players, scouts and coaches generally offered praise for the age minimum.

"Potentially, it's great," said Tim McCormick, an eight-year veteran of the league in the 1980s and 1990s who helps run the high school camp. "We want kids to be mature and ready to handle the transition. It's a man's job."

McCormick said four years of college did not prepare him for the league, with its brutal schedule, shifty agents and eager groupies.

"I think guys like Kobe, LeBron and Dwight have made it difficult to get an accurate gauge on how hard the transition is," he said. "That's really the most important thing we do here, teaching them about how to handle the lifestyle."

Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said he's not sure the age minimum will withstand a legal challenge but said players can benefit from even one year in college.

"I think each year you can spend on a college campus, the intangible and educational benefits serve you well for the rest of your lives," he said.

Despite such success stories as Baltimore's Carmelo Anthony, some critics say players who attend school for only a year can do as much harm as good. Prosser disagreed.

"As long as a young man is going to school, as long as he spends the year doing the right things, if he feels after a year he wants to do something different, I don't have a problem with that," he said.

Pro scouts also said they hope the rule pushes players to college. "You kind of hope that's what it does - that it would encourage them to go to school for a year and get another year under their belts of experience and growth as a basketball player and emotionally," said Dave Twardzik, director of player personnel for the Magic.

Longtime basketball recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons said the age minimum could benefit players who need to mature and college recruiters, who have lost potential targets to the pros in recent years.

"I don't think it's unfair," he said. "I think it will be important to the guys who just aren't ready and then for someone like LeBron, I don't think there are going to be any more LeBrons. I mean, even Dwight could have used a year in college to mature physically."

The rule will not keep pro scouts away from high schoolers, Gibbons predicted.

"They're still going to scout these guys, if for nothing else as a look to the future," he said.

That's among the reasons the age minimum will have little overall impact, some critics said.

"I don't think it will have much effect one way or another on the pro game, because there are so few 18-year-olds in the league," said Dan Rosenbaum, an economist at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro who studies NBA economics.

A look at this year's draft shows that only eight of 80 top prospects ranked by ESPN.com are 18, though eight of the top 19 picks last year would have been ineligible under the rule.

The rule will mainly affect shooting stars such as James, Rosenbaum said. "And I can't see how it's a good thing to keep a player like that out," he said.

Howard's behavior at the camp yesterday seemed a testament to the power of exceptions. Unprompted by anyone, he started pickup games with little kids and threw his arms around staffers he remembered from his years as a camper.

"He was actually, as a high schooler coming into the NBA, one of the most mature players in the NBA last year," McCormick said.

And on the court? Well, Howard remembered Garnett smacking his shot against the backboard and woofing, "I told you about trying to come into the league." But he said he went right back at his idol. When a camper asked Howard if he regretted entering the league at 18, he offered his simplest response of the day: "No."

Sun staff writers Jeff Zrebiec and Don Markus contributed to this article.

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