Future is now for high school draftees

This season's NBA playoffs couldn't have a bigger high school theme if Zac Efron had a starring role.

This is the first time that each of the top four contending teams features a player drafted out of high school as the central figure: LeBron James on the Cavaliers, Kobe Bryant on the Lakers, Dwight Howard on the Magic and, by virtue of his potentially season-ending knee injury that could alter the playoffs, Kevin Garnett on the Celtics. These are the commencement exercises, the full coming of age for this generation of players.

It's rare that a group has a beginning and an ending as sharply defined as this one's. In this case, we can say definitively that it began with Garnett's leap from Farragut Career Academy in 1995 and continued through the 2005 draft, the last before the new collective bargaining agreement forced players to wait a year after finishing high school to enter the league.

Once thought to have unleashed a trend that pessimists worried would ruin the NBA, these players have developed into the caretakers of the game. These four members of the vanguard embody everything you look for in a player: fundamentals, athleticism and passion. And they represent something else: evolution.

Perhaps they haven't mastered the game the way Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did, but in their best moments, they are capable of doing things on the court their predecessors couldn't have imagined.

The sight of the Celtics and the Lakers back in the NBA Finals in 2008 unleashed such a wave of nostalgia that we didn't realize we actually were looking at the future. The palace had been overtaken. For the first time since 1998, neither Tim Duncan nor Shaquille O'Neal was in the Finals.

Chandler Those guys really carried the torch for all of the guys who followed. I had a Kevin Garnett poster on my wall in high school, because that's all I wanted to do.

-- Hornets center Tyson Chandler

This year, with Shaq out of the playoffs and Duncan a long shot to reach the Western Conference finals, it appears their age is over. Perhaps there's one more roar in them, like Jack Nicklaus at the 1986 Masters, but they no longer automatically dictate who will or won't win the championship.

Garnett, appropriately, occupies the throne right now. He wasn't the first to go from preps to the pros -- Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby did it in the 1970s -- but he ushered in the modern era and has been at it long enough that the league now is stocked with players who patterned themselves after him and Bryant.

"Those guys really carried the torch for all of the guys who followed," said Hornets center Tyson Chandler, who entered the draft from Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif., in 2001. "I had a Kevin Garnett poster on my wall in high school, because that's all I wanted to do."

New Orleans' playoff hopes rest on Chandler's ability to recover from an ankle injury. Andrew Bynum's return changes the outlook for the Lakers. J.R. Smith's ratio of 3-pointers made to ulcers caused in George Karl's stomach is a key to Denver's chances. Josh Smith's shot-blocking is the foundation of Atlanta's defense.

There are high school stories throughout the playoffs, all serving as subplots to the potential biggest story of all: It's quite possible LeBron could grab the Larry O'Brien trophy and refuse to relinquish it for years, the way Edward James Olmos locked up every good Latino TV and movie role for a time in the 1980s.

The irony is LeBron and every other high school draftee in the league simultaneously represent a new wave and an old order. There won't be any replacements following them.

While the league has been quick to cash in on these players and capitalize on their coveted appeal to young demographics, teams also dreaded high school players jumping directly to the pros because it expanded the scouting responsibilities and increased the risk for teams. They were giving guaranteed money to players who had played a smaller number of games against inferior competition. Once they entered the NBA, these young players required more supervision.

And, like everything, what was good for a few was done in by excess, like Vegas going from a hip playpen to a town overrun by bachelorette parties and guys with unbuttoned shirts. Instead of elite players making themselves eligible, seemingly everyone who had dunked by ninth grade decided they needed to try the draft after graduating high school. Too many just weren't ready.

Kwame Brown held the distinction of becoming the first high-schooler selected with the No. 1 overall pick in 2001 … now he's on his fourth team, his career having peaked with averages of 11 points and seven rebounds a game in 2003-04. That year, 12 high school seniors announced their intentions to enter the NBA draft. The league had enough. One of the products of the 2005 collective bargaining agreement was the one-year-wait rule. Players don't have to spend that year in college, but they can't play in the NBA.

"It was a concession we made to get something else in return," said Derek Fisher, the NBA Player's Association president.

It wasn't so much what they got but what they didn't give up. Unlike previous negotiations that produced the team salary cap, individual salary limits, a salary-crimping luxury tax and a rookie salary scale, in 2005, the players didn't make a large financial compromise. The one-year wait was an easy chip to play if it maintained the high salaries the players enjoyed. And it's always better to pass the burden along to people who aren't yet members of the union than to ask the constituents to sacrifice.

But who is really hurt by making high school players ineligible for the draft? It could be teams that miss out on the opportunity to pick them. The drafts are deeper with them; the league is better off for having them.

True, there have been busts, but anecdotally (and almost statistically), for every Leon Smith, there are two Yaroslav Korolevs. If saving is really that much of a priority, NBA teams could reduce the travel costs of scouring the world for the next Manu Ginobili and spend more money to develop and incorporate the high school players at home.

Garnett's injury could be a sign of the downside to drafting high schoolers: the extra wear and tear placed on their bodies at such a young age. Bryant always says it's not the age, it's the mileage. Garnett's driven the Paris-to-Dakar rally 14 times now, logging almost 40,000 minutes in the NBA. You wonder if he'll ever be the same. Jermaine O'Neal sure isn't. The only thing keeping Bryant at such a high level is a training/re-habiliation vigor the likes of which the Lakers training staff hasn't seen before.

As they move into their 30s they're providing an on-the-fly case study, something to keep in mind if high school players ever become draft-eligible again.

Not that the rule is about to change. As Fisher said, once something is in the books, "It's harder to go back." With the economy swan diving and up to half the teams losing money, the players will be fighting for every last dollar, so championing the cause of 18-year-olds won't be on the agenda.

This is it, the set is set, a group of players who form their own tribe within the NBA fraternity.

"The last of the Mohicans," Bryant said.

So this spring, pay tribute to the ways of the league's past … and recognize that it's the immediate future.

J.A. Adande is an ESPN.com senior writer and the author of "The Best Los Angeles Sports Arguments." Click here to e-mail J.A.