LeBron James headlines an ad campaign representing his journey from shooting hoops in his backyard to his domination of both the NBA and global sports economy. The tag line: "You don't want to be me; you want to be better than me."
While that seems unlikely given the way the heir to his "airness" is playing this year, it allows for a reference point in the way we view potential NBA players.
The 2005 represented the last NBA Draft during which teams could draft players straight from high school. 2004 and 2005 each had 8 high school players drafted each, a record that will, if the rule holds, never be broken.
If history is any indicator, that is a good thing. Keeping players in college benefits the NBA, college basketball, and most importantly, the players.
In 1999 Jonathan Bender was drafted No. 5 overall from Picayune Memorial High School by the Toronto Raptors, who then traded him to the Indiana Pacers for Antonio Davis. Bender was drafted ahead of Manu Ginobili, Andrei Kirilenko, Ron Artest, Shawn Marion, Richard Hamilton, and Wally Szczerbiak all of whom went on to be NBA All-Stars.
That doesn't even include Andre Miller, Jason Terry, Corey Maggette, James Posey, and Francisco Elson.
Bender was a player who scored 31 points in the McDonald's All-American Game, breaking Michael Jeffrey Jordan's record and was hyped as the leader of a new wave of long, athletic wing players who could score from anywhere.
However, in six seasons Bender never averaged double digit scoring, as he struggled to get off the Pacer's bench.
Clearly, there are numerous cases of players being taken too high or too long, it would be unfair to single out Bender. However, 44 players have been taken directly from high school, only nine have made All-Star appearances. 21 of those players were taken from 2003-2005 and a whopping six average double figures this season.
Raising the minimum age allows NBA scouts to judge talent more effectively. Project lottery picks like Paul Harris and Hasheem Thabeet would have jumped to the NBA and their careers would have fizzled out. Neither was polished enough to play at a high level in the NBA.
Now, both are playing and improving with the potential to be lottery picks coming off of deep NCCA Tourney runs. That not only helps them, but college basketball benefits from their presence and growth, while the NBA will get a better version of their game when it comes.
Players like Lebron James and Kobe Bryant, who are ready to make the jump do not necessarily benefit directly. However, what 18 year old is mentally prepared for the rigors of NBA life, of celebrity. We've seen how it has affected Kobe's life; the NBA “prima donna” image can be shaken if these high school players go to college and learn from some of the best teachers on the planet.
It may be the world renowned professors in the classroom or Professor Williams, Boeheim, or Krzyzewski. Can you imagine Lebron James playing Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor at UConn on Big Monday?
What about if Kobe had followed in MJ's footsteps and attended UNC where he'd face Tim Duncan twice, maybe three times in a season? The kind of player rivalries we have in the NBA now, we used to have in college basketball. The Magic/Bird rivalry started in the NCAA's.
The freshman class this season appears to be even more talented than the last. Donte Green was fifth in the Big East in scoring and 11th in rebounding. Freshman guard Eric Gordon lead the Big Ten in scoring while Manny Harris was fourth. Michael Beasley was third in the nation in scoring, while leading the Big 12 at 26.5 points a game (DJ Augustine was second at 19.8 ppg).
Beasley also lead the nation in rebounding (differentiating himself by nearly 2 rebounds than his closest competition). The Pac-10 may have the most loaded freshman classes. O.J. Mayo and Jerryd Bayless were second and third in scoring in the Pac-10 while Kevin Love is 2nd in boards. Each one of these players, with the exception of Manny Harris, was expected to be a lottery pick coming into the season.
To this point, they certainly have not disappointed. But in the NBA, Donte Green would not be able to get 20 shots a night and Michael Beasley probably wouldn't grab 13 boards a game (Just look at 'Melo's numbers college versus NBA).
None of that matters, the fact is college basketball needs these players. Derrick Rose led the Memphis Tigers to the National Championship game and everyone was waiting him to see him against top talent. All he did was dominate the Tourney and played well against the great guards from Kansas. What's more, the NBA needs these players to play college basketball, to learn how to play the game the right way.
The NBA has had serious identity issues with mainstream America for quite a while. Notice the #1 and #2 picks in this past year's draft were freshman. We knew Greg Oden was supposed to be the second coming of Patrick Ewing, but Kevin Durant played his way into the lottery.
What he did was even more impressive because he didn't just dominate high-school athletes, he dominated Big 12 teams from wire to wire. With the overall talent pool increased, dominating the college game has become that much more difficult. As a result, the quality of the college game has increased.
The NBA benefits from better players having played against higher levels of competition. Players have a chance to get better, prove their worth, and maybe even learn something in COLLEGE.
Hopefully, we'll see fewer stories about star athletes squandering their lives if they get a chance to learn something about life on their way.