High School Breakdown: Will the NBA's Preps-to-Pros Players Last?

Andrew A. McNeillCorrespondent IMay 8, 2009

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 12:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers gets tangled up with Kevin Garnett #5 of the Boston Celtics in Game Four of the 2008 NBA Finals on June 12, 2008 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Kevin Garnett's mysterious knee injury, Jermaine O'Neal's creaky knees, Tracy McGrady's (voluntary) microfracture surgery, Jonathan Bender's career-ending knee pain.

The first (and only, for now) generation of NBA players who entered the league out of high school are now hitting their 30s and racking up the injuries.

Over the next few years, will we witness these preps-to-pros players break down at an earlier age than players who went to college or played overseas?

Now that these players are cracking the age of 30 and their number of games is creeping past 1,000, we're seeing the effect that playing 82-game seasons (plus playoffs) is having on their bodies. Players' bodies (knees, especially) are beginning to break down, similar to what is happening to Garnett, McGrady, and O'Neal.

It's possible that the extra games a player plays in the NBA because he jumped to the league straight out of high school are prematurely causing the wear and tear that many older players experience.

College basketball teams normally play about 30 regular season games and a handful of postseason games, if they're lucky. This year's National Champion, the North Carolina Tar Heels, played in 38 total games. European clubs play about 50-55 games, including league and cup games.

Theoretically, let's say a player enters the NBA after two years of college and plays every season until he's 30 years old. If his teams are successful, he may play an average of 95 games per season. That total is about 950 games. You add 35 games per season of college basketball to his total, and he has played just over 1,000 games.

Now we'll take a player who entered the NBA out of high school. Let's say he stays healthy and plays until he's 30 years old also. He may make the playoffs a few times in his career and even get deep into the playoffs a couple of times. We'll say he averaged about 90 games per season over his career. So if he plays 12 seasons until he's 30, that's 1,080 games so far.

It's almost an entire season more than the player who entered the NBA after two years of college. Don't think that those games don't add up.

Playing at such a high level at a young age, before players' bodies develop, could also have a negative impact on a player's longevity in the league. It's a far-fetched idea, but still something to consider. Very few players, with the exception of LeBron James and, to some extent, Dwight Howard, came into the NBA from high school with anything close to pro-ready bodies.

Jonathan Bender was drafted by the Toronto Raptors in the 1999 NBA Draft and traded to the Indiana Pacers shortly after. Bender played in only 237 games over seven years before he was forced to retire at the age of 25 because of constant soreness in his left knee. It's something to ponder whether playing in the NBA at an early age, before his body was ready, hampered his career.

Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett has been out since Feb. 19 with what the Celtics are calling a "knee strain." But the truth is, Garnett is almost 33 years old and has played in over 1,100 games including both regular season and playoffs. By comparison, Denver Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups, who is the same age as Garnett but was drafted two years later, has played in just over 950 total games for his career.

Another thing to look at is if the age limit NBA Commissioner David Stern implemented is having an unforeseen benefit to the league. When Stern and the league announced the age limit, most thought of it as a way to keep players from skipping college and earning more money over the life of their career, pretending that the rule would keep the quality of play in the league higher and prevent younger players from entering the league before they were ready.

If extending players' careers is actually one of the benefits that the league envisioned, which I highly doubt it is, then the NBA would have said so. Stern and the league office took criticism from a lot of players and media members over the rule and the reasons behind the rule. If they actually thought it would benefit the players, the Commish would have let everyone know.

It's near impossible to prove that a kid who gets drafted in the NBA straight out of high school will have a shorter career and/or more injuries because of it. But these players play with significantly more miles on them than players who spend a year or two in college.

With the first batch of preps-to-pros hitting their 30s, and several big names still to come, their lasting effect in the league will be something to keep an eye on.

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