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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The New Looks NBA Draft ex High Schoolers

High school players gone; draft may have more foreign accent

By Ronald Tillery, Memphis Commercial Appeal
June 27, 2006

Welcome to the new and -- most NBA executives would say -- improved NBA draft. This is the first year of the NBA's minimum age requirement, the rule that requires American-born draft candidates be at least 19 and one year removed from high school.

Part of the reason executives fought hard to change the draft was so that a more mature player would enter the league. About a half dozen high school players, including consensus No. 1 choice Greg Oden and former Mitchell High star Thaddeus Young, were projected as quality draft candidates if not for the regulation.

The absence of prep stars in Wednesday's draft has put the onus on general managers to mine international courts and study the collegiate system more intently. Simply put, there is less concentration on long-term potential, which is the essential makeup of preps-to-pros prospects.

"If you look back at the draft starting in 2002, there's been an average of nine high school players and foreign players who have been selected in the top 22," said Tony Barone Sr., Griz director of player personnel. "But now there are no high school players in the draft. The average number of high school players was six or seven. So that's six or seven fewer players who are now going to appear in that top 22 list. So our job becomes a little bit harder with the 24th pick, to decide who's going to be a factor for us."

Basketball purists believe the NBA's age requirement is a victory for college basketball; a shot in the arm for professional development. But 37 underclassmen, including University of Memphis junior-to-be Darius Washington, remained in the draft. There were 38 college underclassmen in the 2005 draft, and the average amount of early entrants between 1997 and 2004 was reportedly 34.

That suggests the jolt to college hoops is short term because freshmen and sophomores still operate with the mentality of naive prep players. Often those players are led to believe that if NBA scouts and executives are in the stands watching they must be good enough.

Foreign-born players offer a different mindset; more maturity. It used to be that teams would select young international players in the draft and allow them stay overseas for another year or two to develop.

Now, teams have a tendency to go with the perceived preparedness of international player high in the draft. Italy's Andrea Bargnani could be the No. 1 overall pick to Toronto.

"A lot of things have changed," Barone said. "For one, we constantly hear about the European game as not being a physical game. That is totally untrue. They can hand-check, grab, and hold players. As a result, the dribbler really gets beaten up, so the game is definitely physical. The skill level of European players is different from the skill level of American players -- because European kids are going to practice a minimum of two times a day and during preseason they might practice three times a day. And I guarantee, one of the practices focus solely on their skill level.

"They aren't worried about doing 360s, bouncing the ball and dunking. They're worried about their footwork. So you see most of the time, the skill level of European players is at a higher level, because they've worked on it more than Americans kids."

In last year's draft, 14 (four first-rounders) of the 60 players picked were foreign. Houston's Yao Ming (2002) remains the highest draft pick to come directly to the NBA from an international basketball league or federation.

That year, a record 17 international players were drafted, with six in the first round.

"I received an interesting article on the opening day NBA roster. There were 85 foreign players this season, which is an 80 percent increase from five years ago," Barone said. "I thought that was very interesting. We have two international scouts, Paulius Jankunas and Wojciech Barycz -- one is based in Belgrade and one is based in Barcelona.

"You have to pay attention to the European market. It doesn't necessarily mean that there are going to be a number of foreign players in this draft. But, the history proves that you have to pay attention to these international players."

At the end of the day, the draft will take on the character of most others. It's still going to develop as a crapshoot.

Eliminating high school players just means there are more foreign-born players on the dice.

-- Ronald Tillery: 901-529-2353

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