Older, but Not Wiser
A plan to push teens toward college by raising the minimum age
could be a setback to future stars
It is increasingly likely that commissioner David Stern and
players' union chief Billy Hunter will shake hands next month on
a minimum-age rule. Starting in 2004, a player would be
prohibited from entering the league if he wasn't at least 20 in
the calendar year of the draft. While Hunter doesn't favor an age
minimum, he's willing to agree to it to gain concessions in
negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. Stern
believes the rule would improve the quality of play and the image
of the league, as well as raise the profile of rookies, who would
be more familiar to NBA fans after being hyped for a year or two
"I'm hearing from a lot of agents that it's going to happen,"
says a Western Conference executive, echoing a view held by
several G.M.'s. "I wouldn't be surprised," says agent Marc
Cornstein, who has heard that his client, 17-year-old Darko
Milicic, the likely pick after top prospect LeBron James, was
declared eligible by Stern for the June draft because otherwise
he couldn't have entered the NBA until 2005.
Advocates of the minimum age rule insist that players will
benefit from time on a college campus. Most athletes begin to
fill out when they're 20, says Nets president Rod Thorn, and "you
have a couple more years of living before you enter the league."
While R.C. Buford, the G.M. of the Spurs, supports the rule, he
notes that the league must provide an option for teenagers who
don't want to go to college or aren't academically eligible. (At
present the NBDL has a minimum age of 20.)
Many league executives are staunchly opposed to the change,
including Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "It just avoids the problem
of how we develop players on the court and off," he says. It's
not as if the record of teens turned pros is worse than that of
college grads or foreign imports; some of them have developed
into the NBA's most valuable assets. Among the 31 players who
have entered the league since 1995 but would have been excluded
under the proposed rule are Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Stephon
Marbury, Tracy McGrady and Jermaine O'Neal--All-Stars who by and
large have handled themselves well off the court as well as on.
(That group includes other productive pros, such as Gilbert
Arenas, Ricky Davis, Al Harrington, Rashard Lewis and Tony
True, some teens have not panned out--Leon Smith and Will Avery,
for example--but most have used their first two years in the
league to speed their maturation. If 6'11" Kwame Brown, the No. 1
pick in 2001 as a 19-year-old, is anything like his predecessors,
he will blossom for the Wizards next season. There are 10
American players who were teenage draftees and who now have
played at least three full seasons. Collectively, they were
averaging 19.4 points at week's end.
It's hard to imagine how a year or two in college could have made
these players any better. "Everybody who said [that entering the
NBA from high school] was a bad idea was just completely wrong,"
says Bryant. "I learned so much in my first two seasons in the
NBA. It's tough to believe that college would have done that for me."
American teens are also likely to fall behind their European
counterparts by attending college. The NCAA restricts practice
time to 20 hours per week, while players overseas face no limits
on the hours they can spend in the gym. Then again, all this
could be moot if a future LeBron challenges the proposed rule in
court. "You tell him he's got to go to the CBA or somewhere and
make $35,000," says Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders. "How is
that going to fly?"
Jason Williams of Memphis
What Can Brown Do for Him?
To those wondering whether 69-year-old coach Hubie Brown can
relate to the NBA's young millionaires, consider this: Through
Sunday the Grizzlies' Jason (White Chocolate) Williams ranked
seventh in the league in assists per turnover (3.41), ahead of
such playmaking luminaries as Steve Nash (3.05), Jason Kidd
(2.33) and Mike Bibby (2.24), for whom Williams was traded before
last season. "I've grown from my mistakes," says Williams, 27,
who averaged 2.43 assists per turnover last season. "Other than
[the arrival of team president] Jerry West, Hubie Brown is the
best thing to ever happen to this organization."
Over his five seasons--the first three in Sacramento--Williams
was known as a highly talented entertainer with a weakness for
launching untimely three-pointers and attempting the flashy pass
when a simple one would do. After the Grizzlies hibernated
through an 0-8 start, West replaced Sidney Lowe with Brown.
"Hubie lets him play with the same aggressiveness," says the
Timberwolves' Flip Saunders, "but he's tried to make him more
conscious of turnovers, and teach him that you can't do in the
fourth quarter what you might do in the first."
Through Sunday, Brown had guided Memphis to an 18-32 record,
with Williams averaging 12.1 points and 7.6 assists. "The
questions [for a point guard] are, Can you finish, and once
you're in the lane, can you make the pass?" says Brown. "That's
where his biggest improvement has come. Once he breaks the foul
line he can finish because he has great athleticism and he can
score with either hand."
Williams claims that the Kings exploited his early celebrity
before casting him aside. "As a rookie I got all this attention,"
he says, "and I pretty much had to live up to it. But to hell
with the Kings. I want my friends [former Sacramento teammates]
to win, but I don't want the organization to win."
Williams still can put on a show as dazzling as Fred Astaire in a
black-and-white movie--shuffling his feet while faking a
lefthanded pass and popping in a three-pointer, a seamless
sequence he put together during a 111-107 loss at Philadelphia
last week. And he still dances along the narrow divide between
risky and crazy. "He still takes shots that you roll your eyes
at," says Trail Blazers coach and former point guard Maurice
Cheeks, "but I think he is playing a little more under control."
Can Williams fulfill the potential of his rookie year, when he
was compared to Bob Cousy? "A lot of us around the league have
been impressed with what he's done this year," says Heat
assistant Stan Van Gundy. "But it's like anything in this league:
Until he wins, nobody's going to buy that he's playing at a real
The Nets Beef Up
Last June the Nets took Nenad Krstic with the 24th pick, then
left him to continue his development with Partizan Belgrade in
Serbia. Not only has the 19-year-old Krstic gained close to 30
pounds by following a training regimen prescribed by New Jersey,
but he's also grown an inch since the draft. "He's over seven
feet now and probably about 240 pounds," says Nets president Rod
Thorn, who plans to import Krstic this summer as a backup to
Dikembe Mutombo and Jason Collins. "He has a lot of skill, and he
has the kind of body that could get up to 250, 260." To bring
Krstic in, Thorn will have to negotiate with the president of
Partizan--Kings center Vlade Divac.
around the Rim
Though Karl Malone will turn 41 before the 2004 Olympics, coach
Larry Brown believes the Mailman will be in shape to deliver for
the U.S. team. "He told me his weight has gone down every year
he's been in the league," says Brown of the 6'9", 258-pound
Malone.... The trading deadline passed without the Hawks' making
a big trade, but they're still determined to shake up their
roster. "We had some pretty interesting conversations," says G.M.
Pete Babcock, "and we plan to pick them up again this summer."
Amid reports that the struggling team is up for sale, the
question is whether Babcock will be around to finish those
conversations.... Good luck to the Celtics in their effort to
negotiate a buyout of the remaining $43.9 million of Vin Baker's
contract, which runs through 2004-05. Baker's agent, Aaron
Goodwin, has resisted similar entreaties by the Trail Blazers to
reach a settlement with another little-used client, Damon
Stoudamire, who is owed $24.9 million over the next two
On the Pacers, who ended a six-game losing streak last Friday
after Ron Artest, who has missed nine games, returned from a
one-game team-imposed suspension:
"They've lost their spacing, ball movement and unselfishness.
What you're seeing is a lot of dribble penetration. Early in the
season they were moving the ball more freely, and it was hard for
defenses to recover. Now the defense is just collapsing because
whoever has the ball tries to make a one-on-one move. Everybody
talks about Artest's ability defensively, but he's a good ball
handler who can be overpowering at the offensive end, too, and it
hurts them when he's not available."
For the latest NBA news, plus analysis from Jack McCallum, go to