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kriD
12-04-2006, 11:21 AM
Prime-time players?

NBA's preps-to-pros phenoms are now facing longevity questions

By DWAIN PRICE
STAR-TELEGRAM STAFF WRITER

They were part of an era of transition for the NBA.

Before Google -- and before the explosions of cellphones and the Internet -- Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal and Tracy McGrady created quite a buzz when they were drafted directly from high school to the NBA from 1995-97.

Questions were raised about the feasibility of pinning a franchise's hopes on teenagers, and how long it would take them to develop. There were maturity issues and concerns about how the younger players might affect a roster filled with veterans.

Fast-forward to today, and Garnett, Bryant, O'Neal and McGrady are All-Stars and weathered veterans, even though their ages suggest they're still mere babes in the woods. So one major question remains.

Will the players who entered the NBA straight out of high school retire at younger ages? Or will they play on until they're 35-38 like the generations before them, rewriting the record book on the way?

"I don't even think of stuff like that," said Garnett, 30, who is in his 12th season with the Minnesota Timberwolves. "I just want to play ball and help my team win a championship."

When the Timberwolves chose Garnett with the fifth pick of the 1995 draft, he was the first high school player drafted in 20 years. He has since logged at least 2,200 minutes in 10 of his previous 11 seasons, leaving some to wonder if he's past his prime.

After all, Garnett's rebounding and scoring averages are on pace to decline for the third straight season.

"There are certain players in this world that are ready for the NBA at an early age, and KG is one of those players," Timberwolves coach Dwane Casey said. "Will he play four years longer because he came to the NBA out of high school depends on how many minutes he got in those early years.

"Kevin got a lot of minutes early in his career. But Tracy McGrady didn't play many his first couple of years in Toronto, so he still has some miles left."

McGrady, though, has admitted that he's lost a step since being drafted ninth overall in 1997 by Toronto. Recurring back problems forced McGrady to miss 35 games last season and has caused him to ponder retirement when his contract expires after the 2009-10 season. His scoring average is on pace to drop for the fourth consecutive season.

"Right now I can still be explosive," said McGrady, 27, who is in his 10th season. "I can still get by my guy.

"When the basketball is in my hands, I can still do all those things. I was just frustrated that it took me longer [to re-capture that ability after being injured] than I thought it would take."

At 28, Bryant is in his 11th season and has had knee surgery twice since 2003, including this past off-season. Tack on the 126 playoff games he's played, his responsibility as the Lakers' primary ball-handler, and the punishment he takes on drives to the basket, and you have to wonder how many more minutes his body can withstand.

Lakers coach Phil Jackson told Bryant during the off-season that bringing the ball up the court is a physical burden that he doesn't need if he wants to extend his career.

"We talked about it this summer, about how to sustain another eight to 10 years of play," Jackson said. "He's a terrific athlete.

"He should be able to play a long time. He's still young."

But a former Lakers teammate says Bryant's status as a franchise player actually contributes to his decline.

"It's different playing 10 years and you're kind of a role player," Mavs forward Devean George said. "You sit in the corner and wait for the kick-out passes.

"But if you're going in there and bringing the ball up, trying to guard the best player on the other team, trying to get in there for dunks, and driving and getting fouled and getting knocked down and double-teamed, it'll add up and take its toll."

Still, former NBA forward Charles Smith, a regional representative with the National Basketball Players Association who also is in charge of the league's rookie transition program, said today's young players have a distinct advantage over previous rookies because of the knowledge at their disposal. He said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the league's all-time leading scorer who played until he was 42 years old, spoke for the first time at the rookie transition program this past summer and offered some sage advice about longevity.

"Kareem told them it's one thing to do strength and conditioning, but in order to have longevity you must focus on your stretching as well as your strength and conditioning," Smith said. "That's why he lasted so long, and that's why Robert Parish [played 21 seasons and retired at 43].

"So the guys coming in at 18, they have an opportunity for longevity versus what we had, and I think that's great. If you look at the record books, some of these guys are going to break records just because they played longer."

When you consider that legends Bill Russell, Jerry West and Larry Bird entered the league at age 22 and played 13 seasons, it boggles the mind to think what Garnett could accomplish statistically if he plays 22 seasons and retires at 40. But that's a big if.

Consider the case of Jermaine O'Neal. He played just 2,436 total minutes during his first four seasons with Portland, spending most of his time on the bench. But the minutes started piling up when he joined the Indiana Pacers in 2000, causing O'Neal to miss 69 of a possible 164 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.

So is there any rhyme or reason as to how the high-school-to-pro All-Stars will age?

George says the formula is quite simple.

"Whether you come into the NBA when you're 18 or 22, I think it's still wear and tear on your body, and you just get it started at an earlier stage," George said. "Everybody's body is different, but if you come into the NBA at age 18, after 10 years ino the league you still feel the same way as a guy coming into the NBA at age 22 who also has 10 years in the league."