CHICAGO – Larry Bird was perched up in the balcony. Danny Ainge was seated along one sideline. And in every other nook and cranny of the Moody Bible Institute gymnasium here Monday were scores of front-office personnel – scouts, general managers, even an owner – from throughout the NBA.
It used to be if you were looking for lottery picks in March, you hit the NCAA tournament.
These days, in the post-LeBron era, you come to the practices leading up to Wednesday's 40th annual EA Sports Roundball Classic (or next week's McDonald's All American game) to watch the nation's top high school players.
NBA executives expect that a record haul of as many as 10 high school players will be selected in the first round of June's draft. Perhaps seven of them are here.
"The times," said one of those seven, guard Shaun Livingston of Peoria, Ill., "are changing."
While the NCAA tournament continues to churn out drama, it does so largely without superstar talent. Early defections by college players and straight-to-the-draft decisions by high school standouts have fished the NCAA pond nearly out of prospective pros. And since someone has to get picked, high school kids are rushing to fill the void.
While prep-to-pros is not a new phenomenon – it happened back in the 1970s, and then became popular again when Kevin Garnett made the jump in 1995 – what we are about to see is an avalanche.
The current record for high school first round selections is four (2001, 2003). As recently as 2002 there was just one (Amare Stoudemire).
But with the instant impact of Stoudemire and LeBron James, the lack of NBA-caliber talent in the college ranks, and the league's increased willingness to draft on potential rather than production, those numbers will soon seem quaint.
"I wish we didn't have to go through this," said Ainge, the executive director of the Boston Celtics after watching the workouts. "I wish kids would go to college. But we just don't live in that world any more."
Not that Ainge blames the kids. If he came out of North Eugene (Ore.) High now and not 1977, he admits he might turn pro too.
"In the summertime I played with all of the Portland Trail Blazers," Ainge said. "I always thought I could play with those guys. Some guys, not all guys. I am just glad it wasn't even a thought process, because more than anything I am glad I was able to go to college. It was four of the best years of my life."
Being a top high school player means business. Just a couple years ago the high school all-star game was a loose, fun affair for players. A chance to make friends and practice alley-oops.
Today it is a job interview.
"Everyone is watching," said 6-foot-9-inch, 330-pound Glen Davis of Baton Rouge, La. "I need to keep a clean image and a great attitude. You never know who is there and if they want to pick me."
The semi-formal kickoff banquet that used to be overrun by college coaches seeking recruits is now the domain of powerful agents seeking clients. Arn Tellum, Bill Duffy and Dan Fegan, among others, were at the Hyatt Regency on Monday.
What were once meaningless practice sessions now feel like scouting combines. Monday's 20-minute scrimmage was intense. Loose balls were dove for, rebounds fought over. All while scouts scribbled notes.
The pressure was palpable.
"I do feel (pressure)," said Josh Smith, an Indiana signee out of Virginia's famed Oak Hill Academy. "But you can't think too hard or you'll screw up."
Smith, an athletically gifted 6-foot-9 forward is likely a lottery pick according to the buzz along the sidelines ("I am hearing the same thing," he said.) Like everyone here (including 6-foot-11 Josh Howard of Atlanta, the likely No. 1 pick overall), Smith hasn't officially announced he is entering the draft, but he's been on the NBA radar for a year.
"They (scouted me) all season," he shrugged. "I've seen just about everybody I've seen today at Oak Hill."
Deciding to skip college was once an emotional gamble based as much on youthful gumption as business strategy. Only a few dared consider it. Most were non-qualified recruits with few other options.
Now there isn't a top 50 player in the country that hasn't at least entertained the thought. And they fit no stereotype. Livingston is a Duke signee. Brooklyn's Sebastian Telfair is, at most, 6-feet tall. Robert Swift, a 7-foot-1-inch center from California, could become the first white player to make the leap.
"I think it is a no-brainer," said Reebok's Sonny Vaccaro, who has been a pioneer in grassroots basketball for four decades. "They have to do it. I am not an advocate of the kids that are borderline NBA (entering the draft). But if you are guaranteed (to be picked in the first round and receive a three-year contract), you have to go."
Vaccaro says it is simple business. Hit when the market is hot.
"Before their blemishes, their pimples are exposed they should take the money," Vaccaro said. "I know a lot of kids in college playing in that tournament who were thought of like these guys (when they were high school seniors) and they are still in college.
"Now there is nothing wrong with that; don't misinterpret me. But I don't know if going to college makes you a great NBA player."
What about taking time to learn from a great college coach? Vaccaro argues that, due to NCAA restrictions, bad hiring by universities and an intense pressure to win, there are few college coaches who actually develop players.
"Let's say there are 65 top-quality programs in America." he said. "I think there are 10 guys that I would trust my kid to get better with. I think if you investigate the schools you will see where player A got better than player B."
"Besides, look at Tyson (Chandler), Eddy (Curry), Kwame (Brown). It takes time (to improve). But as they were taking the time, they were making millions of dollars and being taught. They would now be juniors at wherever they would have gone. Florida. DePaul. Would they have gotten better? I don't know."
As for the players, there is still an allure to college basketball, especially with the tournament playing out.
"March Madness, that is the best time," Livingston said, sounding like a teenager.
But it is only so strong. Livingston quickly shifted back to sounding like a businessman.
"It's (about making) the best choice for you at the best time," he said. "It is all about timing. If the timing isn't right, then college is the best decision."
But if the timing is right, the avalanche is on.
- Danny Ainge
- Shaun Livingston