Proposal Would Block Teens' Path to the Pros; Idea Not Popular with Prospects or Players

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Byline: Teneshia L. Wright, Times-Union sports writer

The Cleveland Cavaliers have coveted Ohio high school basketball sensation LeBron James for months.

However, the 18-year-old James -- as well as two other players expected to be taken among the top three in next month's draft -- would not be eligible for the draft under a proposal recently put forth by NBA Commissioner David Stern.

The proposal would set 20 as a minimum age for players to be eligible for the NBA. If the proposal were already the rule, the top of June 26th NBA draft, the order of which was determined last night, would be dramatically different.

"We'd have a tough time determining who's the No. 1 pick," said Jim Paxson, the Cavaliers' general manager and senior vice president if James, Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony and 17-year-old Serbian Darko Milicic were ineligble.

Such a rules change would also have disqualified the five other high school students who are among the 73 early-entry candidates for this year's draft.

If the age-restriction proposal had been in place in 2001, Kwame Brown, who graduated from Glynn Academy in Brunswick, Ga., would not have become the first high school player drafted No. 1. It would have prevented former Jackson High and Wolfson High star Antonio Lawrence from even considering entering the draft out of high school last year.

Right now, a player is eligible to declare for the draft as long as he has graduated before draft day. Non-American players also must be at least 18. Milicic turns 18 on June 20, six days before this year's draft.

Early entrants have until a week before the draft to withdraw their names. By doing so, they can preserve their collegiate eligibility provided they did not sign with an agent.

Since the Minnesota Timberwolves took Kevin Garnett with the fifth pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, 16 high school players have been drafted; six others declared themselves eligible for the draft but were not taken. Those six lost their college eligibility as a result.

"How I see it, if you're ready to go, you should be able to go no matter how old you are," Lawrence said.

The NBA wants an age minimum to stop the increasing number of players making the jump from high school. The league believes players would benefit from some college experience because of the great disparity between high school competition and the NBA, coupled with the necessary maturity to handle instant wealth.

"It's a vicious cycle. You have to make sure if you draft a high school player, he's ready to play or you have the room for him to sit and learn," said former Jacksonville University player Otis Smith, who works for the Golden State Warriors. "They get out of mom's house and they have to adjust to life issues. In college, they have an opportunity to adjust to life on the college campus."

Any proposal for age restrictions would have to be instituted as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the NBA Players Association. The current CBA doesn't expire until after next season.

Dan Wasserman, spokesman for the NBA Players Association, said players don't like the idea, making it unlikely his group would permit an age minimum.

"I don't think there's any question that most of the arguments the NBA has made fall on their face," Wasserman said. "The fact of the matter is the majority of the players who entered the league from high school have been overwhelmingly successful -- Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are among the most marketable and best players in the league, and they are among the league's best citizens."

Pat Garrity, McGrady's Orlando Magic teammate and secretary/treasurer for the players association, spent four years at Notre Dame before entering the NBA Draft, but he said high school players shouldn't be forced to play in college first. …