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With an age-limit looming, this may be the last year for young hoops stars to cash in early with the NBA

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With an age-limit looming, this may be the last year for young hoops stars to cash in early with the NBA

The college basketball season ended more than two months ago. Remarkably, the men's pro basketball playoffs are still going strong, and the women's pro season began just recently. The NBA is apt to play deep into June, long enough to provide a seamless if prolonged transition to the men's draft on June 28. Basketball fans in these parts are apt to view the 2005 pro draft with uncommon interest. Seven Triangle players figure to be picked among the 60 divvied up in the two-round draft, including seniors Daniel Ewing of Duke, Jawad Williams of North Carolina, and Julius Hodge of N.C. State.

Of course, players who've completed their eligibility are old news. We're far more fascinated with those who fling their jockstraps into the ring with college eligibility remaining. This spring, 10 ACC performers made that choice, a record for the league, including a quartet who led North Carolina to the 2005 NCAA title.

The loss of Raymond Felton, Sean May, Rashad McCants and Marvin Williams cast a minor but lingering pall over celebrations of the school's fourth national championship. Four early departures from one ACC team is unprecedented tough luck. Duke twice sustained comparable blows, prematurely losing three players in 1999 and again in 2002. The Blue Devils rebounded nicely each time, winning the ACC title and reaching the Sweet 16. UNC, with far less returning talent, will be fortunate to remain competitive in the short run.

Similarly devastating jumps to the pros may be less likely, or at least less lucrative, in the near future. Two days after the '05 draft is held, the labor agreement between the players' union and the NBA is set to expire. A topic of discussion in renewal talks is inclusion of a fixed, minimum age for players, a rule for which college coaches have openly pined. The players' union long opposed any age restrictions beyond completion of high school, but apparently has reconsidered. Youngsters take jobs from the very veterans who pay union dues, and increasingly bring a level of immaturity in their games, personalities and appreciation for tradition that has diminished the NBA's appeal. (Look out! The league has hired a Karl Rove associate to help repair its image.)

The entry-level age figures to be 20. That is similar to rules governing baseball, tracks the age of most college juniors, and would affect a minority of NBA aspirants. This year, of 61 college players who expressed interest in testing the NBA waters, more than 70 percent (43) are juniors. Perfectly reflecting the average, seven of the ACC's 10 potential early departees have completed their junior seasons.

Setting an age standard won't prevent kids from jumping directly from high school to pro ball, a route envisioned by a dozen hopefuls this year. Signees Shaun Livinston of Duke and UNC's J.R. Smith did just that in 2004, skipping college entirely. Underclassmen might also continue to leave early, avoiding what for some is the sham of attending college classes in order to play ball. (Among this year's NBA hopefuls is Florida State's tastily named Von Wafer, a freshman suspended several times in 2004-05, reportedly for failing to attend class.) But the lure of going pro will be reduced when younger departees are relegated to minor league teams located in places such as Fayetteville, N.C., Little Rock, Ark., and Tulsa, Okla. Not much glamour, or money, in that.

An age limit will give colleges--and college fans--a relatively assured, three-year stay by players. Sustaining a successful college program in which top players leave after three years isn't easy, and fans will still feel disappointed when favorites leave. But three years does allow sufficient time for players to develop, become familiar figures, and get within hailing distance of earning a degree, supposedly the purpose of college attendance.

As usual, there is little talk of protecting players' rights, balancing a loss of employment mobility with additional benefits for student-athletes. Undergraduates have no union, no lobbying arm. The adults who earn fame, fortune and prestige from athletics claim to protect players' welfare first and foremost, a notion as dubious as the belief tobacco companies now signing exclusive contracts with growers can be trusted to look out for the farmers' interests. The NCAA should immediately compensate for limits on players' options by making scholarships good for a minimum of three years, not one, as is currently the case. That would track the time players could be expected to stay in school.

Eighteen underclassmen have told the NBA they want to leave now, while paydays remain prodigious for potential stars. UNC freshman Marvin Williams and Wake Forest sophomore Chris Paul are projected among the top three picks in the draft. One Web site, nbadraft.net, projects Williams as the second choice, while HoopsHype.com predicts Williams will go third. Paul trades positions with Williams in each of those scenarios. Players picked that high in 2004 commanded approximately $3 million annually, about double the salaries of UNC coach Roy Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski.

Assuming the age restriction goes into effect, Marvin Williams will be the seventh and perhaps last ACC player to leave after a single year of varsity ball, after Clemson's Skip Wise in 1975; Duke's Corey Maggette in 1999 and Luol Deng in 2004; and Georgia Tech's Stephon Marbury in 1996, Dion Glover in 1998 and Chris Bosh in 2003. (Bob McAdoo left UNC after playing only the 1972 season, but was a junior-college transfer.)

Considering the experience of Shavlik Randolph, a Duke junior, sometimes forsaking a college career might not be such a bad idea.

Randolph reportedly contemplated jumping directly from Enloe High School in Raleigh to the NBA in 2002. Ironically, he was a far hotter commodity as an untested prepster than he is as a college veteran, proving once again that, in recruiting and other covetous pursuits, the squeeze is always juicier on the other side of the street, or some suitable cliché to the effect an unknown bird in the bush is often worth more than a known bird in-hand.

Randolph was worth the risk coming out of high school as a mobile, 6-10 player with good ball skills, a nice shooting touch and a keen grasp of team basketball. Spindly, to be sure, he had time to grow into his body and his game. Today, Randolph is perceived as a big man of limited value, although that hasn't stopped him from making himself draft-eligible.

Prone to injuries and fouls, after three years of intensive weight-training and coaching Randolph is not sufficiently strong to play inside or quick enough to prosper as a wing. He'll probably withdraw his name from the draft by the June 21 deadline. As long as a player has not signed with an agent, or tested the market previously, he can get a free evaluation of his game from NBA experts, then return to college.

The only other ACC player likely to withdraw from NBA consideration is burly Wake center Eric Williams. His return could keep the Demon Deacons in the ACC's first division. Williams is not a finished product, but is a far more effective college player than Randolph, having learned his strengths, tuned his body, and reduced his fouls. Expect him to earn all-league honors and burnish his value. Randolph may be lucky to play a prominent role on a Duke squad favored to vie for the 2006 national championship. Randolph can hope playing for a title team enhances a player's value. Rashad McCants' draft fate will be instructive in that regard. Late-blossoming wing J.R. Smith went in 2004 from high school to the 18th pick in the draft. Meanwhile, the pros soured on the similarly skilled McCants, the ACC's leading scorer in 2004 (20.0 points per game) and Smith's erstwhile UNC teammate.

NBA scouts given a chance to study McCants found problems with his size, defensive intensity, moodiness and acceptance of a team concept. He addressed those issues to good effect in 2005. Now we'll see where McCants is drafted compared to Smith. At least one Web site predicts McCants will be selected exactly where Smith was. That's a spot good for about $1 million per year, plenty of consolation for most people.

  • With an age-limit looming, this may be the last year for young hoops stars to cash in early with the NBA

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