Stern Wants Age Limit On NBA Draft -- But Young Players Show They Belong With Pros

Much to David Stern's chagrin, Taj McDavid is now the exception and not the rule.

McDavid was the skinny forward from Palmetto (S.C.) High School who ignored the advice of practically everyone and declared for the 1996 NBA draft. He sat unchosen, forfeiting all NCAA eligibility in the process.

Three years later, his NBA dreams dashed, McDavid toils in obscurity for Anderson College, a nearby NAIA school.

"It's a pretty sad case," said Tommy Davis, Palmetto's athletic director. "About 99.9 percent of the people told him not to do it, but he did it anyway. Now he's got nothing."

In a perfect world for Stern, the NBA commissioner who is pushing a minimum-age limit of 20 years for his league, McDavid's case would be a siren for any 17- or 18-year-old mulling a similar leap.

Unfortunately for Stern, the Kevin Garnetts and Kobe Bryants of the NBA world keep ruining his argument.

"The younger players coming into the league, for the most part, have shown they belong," Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh said. "I'm amazed there haven't been more failures. It just tells you how good some of these kids are."

Indeed, all seven high-school seniors drafted by NBA teams between 1995 and 1998 remain in the league, with Garnett the first high-school star chosen this decade and Bryant already earning All-Star berths.

Garnett has been a trend-setter in more ways than one. He negotiated a record-setting $126 million contract two years ago that essentially prompted the NBA's recent lockout.

The other five 18-year-olds who entered out of high school haven't flopped, either. Toronto's Tracy McGrady has been deemed untouchable by the Raptors in trade talks, and Portland's Jermaine O'Neal is considered a prime free agent this summer.

That's why few blinked last month when high-school stars Jonathan Bender of Picayune, Miss., and Leon Smith of Chicago were taken in the first round, with Smith going 29th overall to the Mavericks.

The scorecard so far: Of the 11 high-school seniors who have declared the past five years, only McDavid and Ellis Richardson of Pasadena, Calif., have gone undrafted.

So while Stern talks of the pressing need for an age limit, the actions of his teams indicate otherwise.

"If they don't want them in the league, they shouldn't draft them," said Billy Hunter, director of the players union.

Stern insists the league has the right to impose an age limit under the new labor agreement, and he cites similar age rules imposed by the NFL and other major sports to back his stance.

The players oppose age limits, but talks between the league and the union on the issue are expected before the end of the year.

"I understand allowing people who are gifted, who don't want to attend college being allowed to earn a living, but many, many businesses have minimum-age requirements, and we're being pushed in that direction," Stern said.

Stern has the backing of several high-ranking team officials, not to mention college coaches who have seen their game's stability decimated by the influx of high school seniors and college underclassmen to the NBA.

This summer, 39 players with college eligibility declared for the NBA draft.

The impact on the NBA's product has detrimental in the eyes of some executives and players, especially after a shortened season in which scoring slumped dramatically.

"We have a lot of young kids who haven't matured into superstars, and that's the biggest problem," said Houston forward Charles Barkley, who left Auburn after his junior year.

"Every kid in high school and every kid after one or two years of college wants to go pro now. We have to find a way for these kids to stay in college longer or give them some type of grooming, because they're not ready to take over yet."

The extent of what the NBA can do is unknown. Stern is on tricky legal ground because high school players have had the right to play pro basketball since Spencer Haywood successfully challenged the system in court 30 years ago.

That might be why Stern and other top league executives are investigating methods other than an outright age ban to discourage young players from jumping to the NBA.

With encouragement from Stern, the NCAA is studying a proposal in which top college players would be eligible for $20,000 loans from the NBA after their freshman seasons and remain eligible.