In 1999, Jonathan Bender entered his name in the NBA draft. After breaking Michael Jordan’s scoring record in the McDonald’s High School All-American game with 31 points, Bender was assured a top 10 slot in the draft. He heard his name called in the fifth slot, picked by the Toronto Raptors.
At 25, he retired from basketball. Bender was woefully unprepared for the NBA, and it showed.
He never played well in the team concept and “retired” (he has yet to officially retire from the NBA, which requires filing out the necessary paperwork) due to “sore” knees. Anyone who looks at a picture of Bender’s legs while he was in the NBA can see why he simply didn’t have the strength to last a season, as they are comically skinny.
Actually, you don’t need a picture: He was 7’0” and tipped the scales at 215 pounds.
Physically and mentally, Bender was unable to have a successful basketball career. If he was a year wiser and a year stronger, his NBA career could have been much different. “Talent” and “potential” were the only things Bender ever achieved in sports.
The 1980s was a great time for the NBA. Larry Bird carried New England, and Patrick Ewing dominated New York, all while Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan would forever immortalize the numbers 2 and 3.
However, the 1990s brought new challenges for the league and its teams. The old guard was, well, old, and the new guard?
Well…Penny Hardaway is Penny Hardaway, and not much more.
Where was the talent? Wearing Adidas and Nike, and on the AAU circuit.
High school players had entered the NBA Draft sporadically since Reggie Harding in 1962, and before 1995, only five had ever been drafted. That all changed with the explosion of AAU basketball—a nationwide group of club teams dedicated to the sport year 'round. Players in high school were playing against better and better competition, and NBA scouts began to notice.
Every team in the league was drooling over the jaw-dropping talent that came out of high school in the late 90s and early 2000s. Every year, 6’8” guards with wingspans of 7’0” footers who could leap out of the gym would slowly rise up draft boards.
Potential, potential, potential.
Talent was the craze; it was “oozing.” No longer would teams be forced to take the 6’8” and 6’9” “centers” from the collegiate ranks. No, the game was “changing” (one of the most overused terms in sport), and teams began to stock more and more young talent—very few of whom could actually play pro ball.
Remember the Pacers, circa 2001?
As far as sports professions go, basketball is unique in how much money an unproven player can make, and how early. Major League Baseball doesn’t pay as much in rookie salaries, and their minor league system is incredibly well-developed.
Young men are fairly vulnerable creatures, and the ability to stand on one’s own—without an effective support system—takes a while to cultivate. Even LeBron James had a support system. I imagine he is flying solo now.
Unfortunately, these “support systems” are, in most cases, “friends” from home—which is about as close as one can get to a house of cards.
MLB rookies do not have entourages. Friends from home rarely want to follow a bus from Wichita to Toledo to sit through a doubleheader in the summer heat.
Like it or not, the logistics and pay of professional basketball are much more amenable to “friends” than other professional sports.
The NBA eligibility rule—stating that American (or international players who attend American high schools) athletes must be one year removed from high school and 19 years old in order to be eligible—has been a great way to slow down the process.
The ultra-talented players who can make it in the NBA straight from high school, the next Kobe, LeBron or Garnett, will most certainly do so—in time. A year playing in Europe or in the collegiate ranks can only help their draft status, as it has already been solidified.
However, the hype machine that ruined so many talented players shot at a professional career has been dealt a major blow.
No longer will NBA team representatives be able to “assure” kids that their future is set; no longer will agents be able to convince kids of their lottery status; and no longer will “friends” be able to plan out the rest of their own lives, piggybacking on the success of their meal ticket—at least directly out of high school.
The one-year rule provides for another year of maturity, another year of growth, and in some cases—if not most cases—another year to realize how much one needs to grow further, both physically and mentally, for a successful professional career.
Whether taken in Europe, as the young and talented Brandon Jennings is currently doing, or taken in a University—that one year can save the professional careers of dozens of kids. There is no room in Europe (they travel and live much the same way minor league baseball teams do) or in college for the infamous entourages.
A perfect example of how this works in practice is the case of O.J Mayo. He was NBA-ready in high school, and by all accounts, was in the realm of a Kobe or Garnett in terms of ability and impact. While a much different player than those two, physically strong and talented shooters—much less NBA shooters—are rare out of high school. Mayo can shoot the lights out and is and was a thick 6’4”.
However, there were character issues, and plenty of them. He played for four different high schools in four years, was suspended numerous times, and drew a lot of media fire for “bumping” a referee during a high school game.
He then went to the University of Southern California. He went to class, played excellent basketball, stayed out of trouble, and was picked third by the Minnesota Timberwolves in last year’s draft.
His first year in the NBA (playing for the Memphis Grizzles—he was traded for Kevin Love, the fifth pick in the same draft) has been a resounding success, and he is currently averaging 18 points a game. He is having the best offensive season for a rookie since Allen Iverson, and he is an excellent defender.
Mayo’s on-court success is directly tied to his ability to lose the baggage of his past and focus on his vital interests, as the best professionals learn how to do. His one year at USC gave him the time and the freedom to curb excess, become comfortable with a grounded lifestyle, and develop his craft. Simply put, a rookie season sitting on the bench (or, on the other hand, being forced to play when not ready because of draft status) is far less valuable for a player than playing one season of NCAA basketball.
If a player of Mayo’s caliber can benefit from a year removed from high school, then every kid with NBA aspirations can.
The NBA is not designed for kids; it is for men. Seventeen and 18-year-old young men/kids/whatever, who are still trying to figure out how in the hell they can do the things that they can do, are rarely in a position to make it in the NBA. If one year removed from high school can allow players to shake the entourage (at least the margins of it)—becoming better players while growing mentally and physically—then we should all be better for it.
Every player’s situation is different, yet, in the long run, a “gap” year for NBA prospects is better for both the players and the NBA.