What Am I Doing Here? As younger and younger players arrive in the NBA, their challenge is learning how to cope--with a faster game and a faster life

October 30, 2000

A couple of mischievous youngsters were on the loose at the Los
Angeles Clippers' media day in early October. They ran around
with squirt guns, spraying each other and any unfortunate soul
who wandered into their crossfire. Security probably would have
chased the pair away--if they hadn't been two of the Clippers'
2000 draft picks, 19-year-old forward Darius Miles and
20-year-old guard Quentin Richardson. With five players under 21,
the Clippers have a roster that's younger than the cast of
Dawson's Creek, and coach Alvin Gentry knows that he's likely to
witness more kid stuff than almost any coach in the league.
"Somehow I don't think you're going to see anybody show up to
practice with the Miami Heat or New York Knicks packing a water
pistol," he says.

But soon you might. The face of the NBA is changing into one that
only needs a shave once a week; the stream of youngsters entering
the league with little or no college experience, many of them
teenagers, is growing every season. Only a few years ago there
was consternation about players turning pro at such a young age,
but a high schooler declaring himself eligible for the draft
these days barely causes a ripple. The kids have been so
emboldened by the success of teens turned pro, such as Kobe
Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kevin Garnett of the
Minnesota Timberwolves--and so heedless of the fates of Taj
McDavid or Ellis Richardson, who skipped college to enter the
draft and were never selected--that they're going to keep coming.
League and team officials are powerless to stop them. "I'm
planning on seeing a high school tournament around Christmas,"
says Seattle SuperSonics general manager Wally Walker. "A couple
of years ago we wouldn't have considered that." Even the Utah
Jazz, the buttoned-down conservatives of the league, selected a
high school player, 19-year-old shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson,
with the 23rd pick in June's draft.

The fortunes of several possible playoff teams this year will
turn on players who aren't far removed from their senior proms--or
in the case of budding Dallas Mavericks third-year forward Dirk
Nowitzki, a 22-year-old from Wurzburg, Germany, their last days
of gymnasium. In Jonathan Bender, 19, Al Harrington, 20, and
Jermaine O'Neal, 22, the Indiana Pacers' new coach, Isiah Thomas,
will entrust a trio of untested forwards with important roles in
defense of their Eastern Conference title. The Orlando Magic has
transformed itself into an Eastern Conference power, in no small
part because it worked a sign-and-trade for fourth-year forward
Tracy McGrady, 21, rewarding him with a seven-year, $93 million
contract. Despite heated bidding, the Sonics held on to their
budding star, third-year forward Rashard Lewis, 21, and the
Milwaukee Bucks did the same, retaining promising forward Tim
Thomas, 23. The only one of those seven players who passed
through a college classroom on his way to the NBA was Thomas, who
spent a year at Villanova before turning pro at 20.

Very early entrants into the NBA are like personal computers:
They're increasingly common, but not every owner knows how to use
them. From now on, one factor that will separate successful
franchises from losing ones will be the way they nurture their
young talent on and off the court. Before Garnett arrived in
Minnesota, in 1995, the team had an elaborate support system
ready that included everything from a surrogate family for
Garnett to live with to pizza parties with University of
Minnesota players. It turned out that Garnett, 24, didn't need
the help, but he admits, "There's a lot to learn. It's everything
from how to pass out of the double team to where to get a good
breakfast on the road. Some things nobody can teach you, but it
definitely helps to be with a team that knows how to help you."

A young player knows that he also has to prove to his teammates
as well as to his opponents that he is man enough to survive.
"This is a confidence league," says Gentry. "If your opponent
sees he can break your will, he's going to do it." For Garnett, a
three-time All-Star and the highest-paid player in the game, the
moment of truth came playing against his teammates during
training as a rookie. "Doug West came at me from the jump in
scrimmages, just to see if I had heart," he says. "Then I got
into a shouting match with Sam Mitchell the first day. I was just
standing up for myself, showing that I was going to earn my
respect."

The youngsters have other big obstacles to surmount on their way
to establishing themselves as pros, such as dealing with the age
difference among them and most of their teammates, handling the
increased media attention and keeping up with the giant leap
forward in the size, speed, skill, smarts and strength of the
competition. It took the 6'9", 205-pound Miles--who, at No. 3, was
the highest draft pick ever out of high school--only two
exhibition games to recognize that he will have to do something
about his lack of muscle. "I didn't lift in high school," he
says. "The first time I walked into our weight room, I didn't
know what was in there or how to use most of it. I had no idea
there were so many kinds of machines."

That's typical of the youngsters--sometimes they don't realize how
much they don't know. Last season's co-Rookie of the Year, Elton
Brand, who stayed at Duke through his sophomore season, remembers
the bits of wisdom he gleaned last year from his older Chicago
Bulls teammates, like Randy Brown, Hersey Hawkins, Will Perdue
and Dickey Simpkins, things he never would have known to ask.
"They told me to ice down after practice even if your knees don't
hurt, little things like that," says Brand. "I still hear those
things today, even though every one of those guys is gone."

Most teams are well equipped to address on-the-court issues, but
those, too, can be tricky with players so young. One rule is that
more can be learned by action than by observation, or, as Bryant
puts it, "Sink or swim, baby. Sink or swim." Young talent tends
to go stale when it's kept on the bench for too long.
Bottom-feeders like the Clippers have nothing to lose by giving
their kids a lot of playing time, but even teams with more at
stake should make sure their young players aren't glued to the
pine. During Bryant's first two years in the league the Lakers
endured his youthful mistakes, even in the playoffs, despite
considering themselves title contenders. Likewise Garnett, Lewis
and McGrady all got significant minutes by their second season.
The Portland Trail Blazers, meanwhile, put O'Neal on the floor
only for short and irregular stretches, and all they developed
was a frustrated player who was thrilled to be traded to Indiana
last summer.

The more the youngster gets to learn by trial and error, the
faster he will probably come to the moment of clarity that some
attain, the point at which he finally understands what it is to
be an NBA player. For Bryant, that revelation came last Feb. 1
before a game at San Antonio. "That morning in the shootaround we
were going through some drills and going through the rhythm of
the offense," he says. "Something just clicked. I knew what my
teammates wanted, what Phil [Jackson, the L.A. coach] wanted, how
to organize the structure of the team. I figure it was a process
that just took time."

Players like Miles can only hope that such a moment is in their
near future. "I don't know when I'll feel I've made it," he says.
"All I know is that guys like me have to go out every night with
the idea of being a little bit better than the night before. The
NBA is like a big forest, and I'm trying to find my way."

Or maybe the league is more like a garden, with fresh seeds
scattered about. More than ever, the fun will be in seeing what
grows.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. Dealing With The Media Madness RASHARD LEWIS, who bypassed college to take the short route to the pros, has to learn when to talk and what to say. In high school, he only had to answer to his coach. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. Listening To The Master Mentor Thomas, the new coach of the Pacers, has three youngsters--(from left) BENDER, O'NEAL and HARRINGTON. He's been there, they haven't. But if they don't learn, he won't win. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. Understanding The Money Makers A fledgling talent on the rise, NOWITZKI has to learn whom to trust among the agents, lawyers and marketeers who suddenly love him. And all they need is just a minute of his time. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. Achieving A Major Makeover The highest-drafted high schooler ever, MILES has entered a world of swifter, stronger and more skillful players. If he doesn't toughen up quickly, the big boys will run him out.
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