Sunday, February 01, 2004

Recruiting - hoops

Nice article from the Chicago Tribune on jumping straight to the pro's with focus on Howard / Morris:

Knowing who's ready no slam dunk
NBA execs' Catch-22: They may not want high schoolers in draft, but they can't ignore them
By Avani Patel - Tribune staff reporter

February 1, 2004

ATLANTA -- Ten years ago, they would have been a well-kept local secret, their matchup a delight only for those living within driving distance. But Friday night, their talents were on display live before the game's top scouts and all across the nation via cable television.

In the high-stakes world of big-time basketball, there are no secrets anymore.

When Randolph Morris and Dwight Howard led Landmark Christian High School and Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, respectively, onto the floor at Georgia Tech, the crowd of 5,032 included behemoths of the basketball business. They included the Memphis Grizzlies' Jerry West, the Miami Heat's Pat Riley and the Paxson brothers, Jim from the Cleveland Cavaliers and John from the Bulls.

Along the sidelines stood camera crews and announcers, helping broadcast the game on ESPN2.

Also in attendance were Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt and Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. But they were almost afterthoughts because these two high school stars are likely to skip the college ranks for the NBA.

With all this attention lavished on these teenagers, the question keeps coming up: Is this a good thing--for the players, the college game and the pro game?

John Paxson, who starred at Notre Dame before a long career with the Bulls, doesn't think so and wishes the NBA had an age limit for entry.

"If we had a system that was good for everybody involved, including college basketball, we'd have an age limit," he said. "But it has been taken through [the legal system]. There's no question in many people's minds, mine included, that it hurts our game, hurts the college game and that all parties would be better off with an age limit."

West, a high school legend known as "Zeke from Cabin Creek" who was an All-American at West Virginia and a perennial NBA All-Star with the Lakers before a stellar career as a pro executive, agrees with Paxson.

"It almost seems like something you shouldn't be doing, because I don't think any of us are absolutely delighted with things like this, but it's part of the culture of the NBA today," he said. "Kids have the opportunity, if they're good enough, to get drafted."

And make a lot of money.

Tons of talent

Four years and eight inches ago, Howard was about 6 feet 3 inches. Now a svelte 6-11, Howard, who averages 24 points, 16 rebounds and eight blocks per game, has the height to play center and the ball-handling skills of a point guard.

That combination is enough to feed talk that he could be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft this spring.

Morris, a 7-foot, 250-pound center who averages 25 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks, is a more traditional post player, well-skilled at using his bulk to clear space inside, fight for rebounds and capitalize on easy layup opportunities.

But can they succeed quickly in the pros?

Some players--most notably the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, the Timberwolves' Kevin Garnett (who came out of Farragut in Chicago) and the Cavaliers' LeBron James--have moved almost seamlessly from high school to the pro game.

Others--the Bulls' Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry come to mind--haven't fared as well.

The Bulls, a dismal 13-35 after Saturday's 102-95 overtime loss at Portland, are again in contention for a lottery draft pick. Will the Bulls use another high draft pick on a high school player--possibly Howard?

Paxson inherited former GM Jerry Krause's plan to build a franchise around Chandler and Curry. It's safe to assume Paxson wouldn't have subscribed to the same plan.

His first off-season move and first major trade with Toronto made it clear Curry and Chandler were the focal point of the Bulls' rebuilding effort. But Curry's inconsistent play and poor physical condition, and Chandler's nagging back injury, have derailed the effort.

For the first time since they became Bulls, Curry and Chandler have lost the "untouchable" tag.

"It's hard," Paxson said. "For every Kobe or Kevin Garnett, there are too many other players who don't have a clue."

That said, Paxson went to Atlanta eagerly to scout Friday's game, which won't be the last time he will see these high schoolers play.

"You still have to take a look at these players," Paxson said. "I've already seen five kids who are probably coming out this year."

Jim Paxson, who took James with the No. 1 pick last June, said scouting high school players for the pros is always hit or miss.

"You get a shorter period of time to really see them," he said. "You have to do your homework."

Friday night, for instance, Howard met his average with 25 points. But all but one of those points came on dunks.

"I know one of the players playing here can dunk the ball," West said. "But can he shoot the ball?"

Time lag

Even if the talent is obvious, developing it can take time.

"I was with Jermaine O'Neal in Portland when we drafted him (out of high school in South Carolina), and Jermaine in his first four years didn't play a lot," Jim Paxson said. "And now he's 24, 25, one of the best players in the league [with Indiana]. But to project that will happen for sure is very difficult."

For outsized talents, college is viewed as child's play. But it hasn't always been that way. Ten years ago, a supremely talented, physically mature Bayou teen finished high school and headed to Baton Rouge, La. If he had been born a decade later, Shaquille O'Neal probably never would have played at Louisiana State.

"He would have gone straight to the pros," Jim Paxson said.

Sometimes the pressure to go professional is financial--players see NBA riches as a way to help their families.

Howard and Morris face no such pressures. Both come from stable, two-parent homes.

"If in fact he goes to the [NBA], he has promised that he wants to get his [college] degree in at least five years," said Dwight Howard Sr., a Georgia state police officer.

Howard's mother isn't sure the NBA is the best route for him.

"As far as basketball in college, it's a different level than the NBA," said Sheryl Howard, a physical education teacher at her son's school. "I think college ball is more exciting. The NBA, it's your job. So if that happens, he's jumping from a teenager to manhood. Sometimes I think maybe he needs to go to college."

NBA executives often feel the same way.

"[But] with so much exposure on TV and the names being floated around as much as they're floated around, there's a lot of pressure on anyone to take a look at these high school kids," West said.

Last season Skokie-based Paragon Marketing Group brought two games featuring James, then of St. Vincent-St. Mary in Akron, to ESPN2. The company also helped stage Friday night's game.

"We put LeBron on because he was a phenomenon that everybody wanted to see play but never had," Paragon executive Rashid Ghazi said.

Is the exposure in danger of morphing into exploitation?

"The press has been putting color pictures of high school players on the front pages of newspapers for years," Ghazi said.

"This is just a natural progression."

Stress factor

Perhaps, but the stakes are getting higher all the time for all concerned.

"The pressure is you don't want to miss on the kid that's going to be the next Kevin Garnett or Kobe Bryant or LeBron James," Jim Paxson said.

Are either Howard or Morris at that level?

Both scored 25 points Friday. Morris added 15 rebounds and five blocks, while Howard had 11 rebounds and four blocks before fouling out with 1:19 to play. With its best player gone, Southwest Atlanta could not answer Landmark's furious late flurry, ultimately falling 73-71.

"I believe that the one thing that might tend to stop something like this, with so many kids coming out, is if we see failures. And we'll see failures," West said.

"And when they do fail, it's not going to be a pretty picture."