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MAKING THE JUMP THE ODDS OF MAKING IT IN THE NBA ARE DAUNTING FOR ANYONE. SO HOW DOES A YOUNG COLLEGE STAR KNOW WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT TO STEP UP TO THE PROS?

Nov. 15, 1996
Nov. 15, 1996

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Nov. 15, 1996

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MAKING THE JUMP THE ODDS OF MAKING IT IN THE NBA ARE DAUNTING FOR ANYONE. SO HOW DOES A YOUNG COLLEGE STAR KNOW WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT TO STEP UP TO THE PROS?

Thank you all for coming this afternoon. For those of you who
don't know me, my name is Billy Dollar and I'm a fourth-grader
here at Eager Beaver Elementary School. I'm having this press
conference to announce my basketball future. After talking about
it for several minutes over Slurpees at the arcade with my pals
Blinky, Tiny and Slick, I have decided to give up my eligibility
for the rest of fourth grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, junior
high, high school and whatever grades come after that so I can
enter the NBA draft. This was a very, very tough decision, but
my mom and dad have sacrificed so much in my nine years,
supporting me through three very difficult grades, and it's just
time for me to give something back.

This is an article from the Nov. 15, 1996 issue

In case you were wondering, I got this idea the other day after
I beat Fat Freddie in H-O-R-S-E during gym. It was, like,
killer. Then, later that day, my girlfriend, Tiffani, passed me
a note during our spelling test that said, "Next to Brad Pitt, I
love you more than anybody. But please follow your dream. Go to
the MBA."

There are so many people I need to thank for helping me make
this decision. I wouldn't be here today without the inspiration
of all those guys last spring who left college early. They
taught me for sure that college is just a crummy waste of time
when you play basketball for no money. Most of all I'd like to
thank Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal, two former high school
guys who are role models for all us kids. They showed us that
even people who are still getting carded can rake in jillions of
dollars playing hoops.

I'd like to thank Mr. Knight at Indiana for all his letters and
phone calls, Mr. Lappas at Villanova for offering Daddy that job
as an assistant coach and Mr. Tarkanian at Fresno State for
sending me the Power Rangers action figures--even though they
are sooo last year. If you all have any questions after I
finish, please talk to my agent. I think you all know Mr. Falk.

Anyhow, thanks again for coming, and please stay in your seats.
My little brother Kenny, who's in kindergarten, is planning to
announce his NBA plans right after he wakes up from Quiet Time.

Ever since Spencer Haywood sued the NBA in 1971, giving birth to
the so-called hardship rule (which allows players who have not
yet completed their college eligibility to join the pros), the
basketball world has gradually been speeding up the clock. More
and more kids have been heading off to the NBA every year, at
younger and younger ages. A total of 256 players have applied
for early entry into the NBA draft (i.e., before they were
seniors) over the last 20 years, 135 of them (52.7%) during the
'90s. Last spring alone a record 42 players declared themselves
eligible. The first seven picks in April's draft were
early-entry applicants, and a record 17 players who hadn't
completed their college eligibility, including two high school
kids, were selected in the first round. Only 11 of the 29
opening-round picks were actually college seniors. "College
basketball coaches are like the little Dutch boy," says Wake
Forest coach Dave Odom, "but the dike is springing leaks faster
than we can put fingers in them."

So how do all these young guns decide when the time is right to
go pro? How do they know when to say when?

Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson understands the decision-making
process as well as anybody. After the last two seasons, five
Razorbacks declared themselves eligible for early entry, and
while Richardson admits that each case is different, he asks
himself some standard questions before advising each of his
would-be early birds.

--Is the kid mature? Or is he really just a kid in a grown-up's
body?

--Does the kid have an NBA game to go with that NBA body?

--How high will the kid be drafted?

The answers to these questions may portend success or failure in
the pros, but Richardson is quick to mention what he considers
to be the most critical questions of all:

--Who is this kid? How are his parents doing financially? Does
he even have a father at home? Does he have a family to support?
What is the reality?

"I'm not one who believes too much in loyalty to a coach or to
the fans," Richardson says. "The pros may be a kid's only meal
ticket. I've done some research, and I found that one million
people got their college degrees last year and there were only
500,000 jobs out there. I don't know of any job better than the
NBA."

Scotty Thurman came knocking on Richardson's door looking for
guidance in the days following his junior season in '94-95.
Richardson analyzed his star guard's maturity and talent. He
consulted with NBA scout Marty Blake, among others, to check on
Thurman's draft prospects. Richardson advised Thurman to stay in
school for his senior year. Thurman then told his coach that he
was starting a family and felt he needed to begin collecting a
paycheck. Richardson gave him his blessing.

Thurman wasn't drafted, and after signing as a free agent with
the New Jersey Nets, he was cut in training camp. He ended up in
the CBA last season, with the Sioux Falls Skyforce and the
Shreveport Storm, averaging 9.3 points per game. "I did what I
felt I had to do, and now I have to prove myself to all of those
who doubted me," says Thurman. "I have no regrets about coming
out. It was the time for me to move on."

Still, Thurman has become the patron saint of early-entry
miscalculation, which is not to say that he is alone. Of the 93
players who declared themselves available for the draft between
1990 and '95, less than half--43, to be exact--played even one
minute in the NBA last season. Some of those with NBA dreams
played instead in outposts like Iceland, Malaysia and Turkey or
for Athletes in Action or the Harlem Globetrotters. Some were
not playing pro basketball anywhere at all.

And for those who do stick in the NBA, playing time might not be
quite as forthcoming as they had imagined. Yinka Dare of George
Washington, Clifford Rozier of Louisville and Dontonio Wingfield
of Cincinnati were all big names in college who decided to take
the money and sit. "Most of these young kids can't play, but
nobody will tell them," says Houston Rockets star Charles
Barkley. "They actually think they're good, then reality hits
when they get to the NBA. But by then it's too late."

Despite all those cautionary examples, more and more players are
coming out early. Why?

"You have to look at both sides," says Ray Allen, who left the
University of Connecticut after his junior season and was the
fifth player taken in the '96 draft, by the Minnesota
Timberwolves (who then traded him to the Milwaukee Bucks).
"Where would I rather be? In the NBA, making money, with no
rules, a job and any car I want? Or in college, where I've got
to wake up early and go to class and have no money in my pocket?"

Allen ignored his own school's archetype of premature departure.
Donyell Marshall, Allen's former teammate and the only other
player ever to leave UConn early, was taken by the Timberwolves
in '94 as the No. 4 pick in the draft and was signed to a
nine-year, $42.6 million contract. Marshall struggled mightily
and during his first season was traded to Golden State, where he
rode the bench for the Warriors much of '95-96.

It was Marshall's good--and bad--fortune that guided Utah senior
forward Keith Van Horn back to college this season. Says his
coach, Rick Majerus, "Keith and I talked about Donyell Marshall
and how he can't get a game, but he does have $40 million. Look,
you make a deal with the devil when you leave early. It's a
significant amount of money, but you relinquish the right to be
young and foolish."

Van Horn would most likely have been selected among the first 15
picks in last spring's draft, but he believes he has a chance to
go higher with a dominant senior season. "Anytime you have $6
million in your face, it makes it extremely tough," says Van
Horn. "Money talks, but it doesn't buy happiness. Maybe it was
the right decision for me, maybe it wasn't. We'll see."

By choosing to remain in school, Van Horn now faces the
unnerving prospect of becoming another Ryan Minor, one more
draft loser. Minor was named Big Eight Player of the Year after
his junior season at Oklahoma in '94-95 and was expected to be
drafted somewhere in the middle of the first round if he left
early. But the kid from Hammon, Okla., wanted to stay for his
senior season and finish his college career in front of his
family. His statistics dropped off in his final season (his
field goal percentage went from 48.6% to 41.7%), and Minor fell
into the second round, 31st overall, to the Philadelphia 76ers,
thus forfeiting a pile of money. "All he can do is speculate
about what might have been," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson.
"Is Ryan kicking himself? There's enough people doing that for
him."

Says Minor, "Everybody's case is unique, but I wasn't ready to
become an adult and get a job, even if it was an NBA job. Sure,
I might have been drafted higher last season, but hindsight is
20/20, and I thought I did what was best for me at the time.
Live and learn."

Like every college player, Minor hoped to jump into the lottery,
where big money awaits and guaranteed contracts are the rule.
Historically, players picked in the lottery--the first 11
selections--have had a great chance for long-term success in the
NBA. And the higher the better: From the first six drafts of the
'90s, only one player chosen lower than 11th (Golden State's
Latrell Sprewell in '94) has made the NBA All-Star team. Only 21
players drafted outside the lottery in the '90s were regular
starters in the NBA last season. "If a guy is a first team
All-America, if his name is on the lips of every NBA team--like
Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Ray Allen--then it's time to talk
about leaving early," says UCLA coach Jim Harrick. "But if a guy
isn't going to be a top-five pick, I'm not sure it's worth
going. Kids have to realize you're a piece of meat in the pros.
Either you produce or you're out."

Says former Cal coach Todd Bozeman, "When you look at it, who
are the stars of the NBA? Guys like John Stockton, David
Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Scottie Pippen; none of those guys
were prep All-Americas. Many of the stars are guys whose careers
matured over three or four years in college."

Nonetheless, any star player who stays in college for four full
years these days is an anomaly. People constantly ask Wake
Forest senior Tim Duncan, one of the best centers on the planet,
why he is still playing college ball--for little more than pride
and all-you-can-eat Jell-O at the Deacons' training table--when
Jermaine O'Neal, an 18-year-old project, will make $2 million as
a rookie this season with the Portland Trail Blazers.

Duncan, who many scouts believe would have been the top pick in
either of the last two drafts, grew up in the Virgin Islands in
a culture less driven by pursuit of a quick buck. (He also
possesses a $3 million insurance policy in case of injury.) "I
want to finish school and contend for a national championship,"
says Duncan, who made a promise to his late mother, Ione, that
he would earn his college degree. "It just feels right to me,
and I will never look back and second-guess myself."

"The Tim Duncan situations are going to be rarer and rarer,"
says Seth Greenburg, coach at South Florida. "Kids are told to
get their 'clock' started so that they can be free agents
quicker and get the big money."

The rookie salary cap that the NBA instituted with its 1995
collective bargaining agreement was designed to stem the rising
tide of early entries, but instead it has only worked to
encourage kids to leave school earlier: Now they want to begin
playing under their initial contracts--which are limited by the
cap to three years--as soon as possible so that they can become
free agents when they are as young as possible. Kids confronted
with the pitfalls of early entry can point to Barkley, Magic
Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Isiah Thomas as
players who left school with eligibility remaining and thrived
in the NBA. "So many guys have the confidence to think that they
can play in the NBA," says Kansas sophomore forward Paul Pierce,
who will have to make his own NBA decision next spring. "It
seems like all the high school guys you talk to say they want to
go 'two and out.' I'm sure the rookie cap has a lot to do with
it, because guys think they have to start their clocks to become
free agents, and that has just made more guys think about going
pro."

"Everybody thinks they can make it," says Pepperdine coach
Lorenzo Romar. "You tell these kids, 'Look at what happened to
Scotty Thurman,' and they tell you, 'That's Scotty Thurman,
that's not me.'"

Even though Thurman's case was so near to them, three
Razorbacks--Sunday Adebayo, Jesse Pate and Darnell
Robinson--declared themselves eligible for early entry last
season. Only Robinson, who was chosen by the Dallas Mavericks
with the draft's 58th and final pick, was even selected. "All
these kids are leaving early, so there are fewer and fewer
places in the NBA to put them," says Richardson. "Pretty soon
many of them will fall through the cracks."

But which ones? And which ones will land on their feet? Will St.
John's junior Felipe Lopez ever regain the lofty stature he had
as a high school senior, when perhaps he should have jumped
straight to the NBA? Can Kentucky sophomore Ron Mercer's stock
go even higher than it did after his outstanding performance in
April's NCAA championship? What of UCLA junior Toby Bailey? Or
Cincinnati junior Danny Fortson? Or Michigan junior Maurice
Taylor? Now that Georgia Tech junior Matt Harpring has emerged
as a star, will he forgo his senior season? Has Kansas senior
Jacque Vaughn, who tore ligaments in his right wrist during the
off-season, waited one year too long? Will Vaughn's junior
teammate Raef LaFrentz stay for his senior year too? And what
about all the Billy Dollars out there pondering their futures?

"These kids are told to come out early, play three years and
then collect the big money," says the NBA's Blake. "But how are
you going to get big money if you can't play? Or if you don't
play? No one tells these kids about that, and they are in for a
rude awakening. The clock can tick, but what good does it do you
if nobody hears it?"

COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Duncan's desire for a degree means putting the NBA's riches on hold. [Tim Duncan]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Like all potential early entrants, Kansas's LaFrentz (left) will have to ask himself if his young body is tough enough for the NBA. [Raef LaFrentz]COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE KALINSKY In the eyes of pro scouts, Kentucky's Mercer (left, 33) has raised his value to a new high, but Lopez's stock (right, 13) has dropped. [Ron Mercer]COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE L. SCHWARTZMAN [See caption above--Felipe Lopez]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Like Olajuwon, Pippen and other NBA stars, Georgia Tech's Harpring has made great strides in his game in college. [Matt Harpring]COLOR PHOTO: PHIL HUBER Utah's Van Horn has gambled that his senior year will pay off in a lottery pick. Will Taylor (far left) of Michigan take that chance this spring? [Keith Van Horn]COLOR PHOTO: BRUCE L. SCHWARTZMAN[See caption above--Maurice Taylor]COLOR PHOTO: DARRELL MIHO After this, his junior year, UCLA's Bailey may find out if his spectacular college moves translate into eye-popping bucks from the NBA. [Toby Bailey]