No limit (yet) on NBA's young talent pool

LeBron James wouldn't have signed a multi-million dollar deal with Nike before graduating from high school.

Darko Milicic would be the "Next" cover boy, not the "No. 2" namesake on this week's ESPN Magazine cover.

Syracuse fans could dream about another national championship with Carmelo Anthony around another year.

Chris Bosh would be a preseason ACC Player of the Year candidate at Georgia Tech.

The NBA never would have seen Pavel Podkolzine's jaw-dropping workout in Chicago two weeks ago.

Kirk Hinrich, T.J. Ford, Dwyane Wade and Chris Kaman would be vying for the No. 1 spot in the 2003 NBA draft.

That is, of course, if a 20-year-old age limit was imposed on the NBA draft.

Realistic? No.

Such an age restriction on the 2004 NBA draft will be a tough sell for the league when it meets with the players association during negotiations over the next collective bargaining agreement. Commissioner David Stern would like to see an age limit, but teams are split when it comes to keeping teenagers out of the draft.

The days of seniors and a few underclassmen making up the first round -- not to mention the lottery -- has gone the way of the mid-range jump shot over the past decade.

Today's NBA draft has become more like the MLB and NHL drafts, with younger and younger players being picked as future investments. But, with the short-term gains less of a necessity, the need to change the draft isn't as pressing. Some veteran players could lose jobs to younger players with guaranteed contracts, but the players association isn't going to give in on the age issue without getting something back in return (i.e., a change in the length of the rookie wage scale).

The thought of an age limit in this draft sends agents scrambling for lawyers to file a motion for an injunction and some teams wondering if it's possible to ask out of the pick.

"The draft would be very, very weak," said SFX's David Bauman, who represents 20-year old Carlos Delfino and 19-year old Aleksandar Vujacic. "There's no way that the players and agents would allow it. I would be the one of the first ones to run to the courthouse and file a lawsuit. Sasha Vujacic and Darko Milicic are more mature than a lot of 19- and 20-year-old college kids."

What would agents exactly do to get their players in the draft with such an age limit?

"We would have to start changing birth dates on passports,'' Bauman said in jest.

Bauman admitted, however, that an age limit would affect a player like 16-year-old Nemanja Alexandrov, a 6-foot-11 client of Bauman. Alexandrov is in the FMP Zeleznik program in Yugoslavia and "it wouldn't be right for his family to have to wait four more years."

"That rule would adversely affect him," Bauman said. "The right age is 18, unless there is a true minor-league system."

Houston Rockets player personnel director Dennis Lindsey said if this year's draft was age restricted, "you'd see even more teams trying to trade up." The reason? Teams see only Ford, Kaman, Wade and Hinrich as potential impact players over the age of 20.

"If you started taking the under 20-year old guys out of this (draft), I'm not sure you wouldn't have people passing (on picks)," Lindsey said.

The thought of an age limit for this draft makes agent Marc Cornstein squeamish. He has a chance to represent four first-round picks next week with Milicic, Aleksandar Pavlovic, Zoran Planinic and Slavko Vranes. An age limit would cut his list in half, with only Planinic and Vranes available to teams on draft night.

"My year wouldn't be as fun," Cornstein said. Cornstein also said the intrigue over the younger European players that aren't as well known -- like Nikoloz Tskitishvili a year ago or Podkolzine and Maciej Lampe this year -- would be gone under an age restriction.

"It might increase the value (of a Milicic), or it might not because they would be older," Cornstein said. "There's no question it would weaken the draft."

At the other end of this question is Octagon's David Schwab and Doug Neustadt, who would be in position to have a top-two pick with Hinrich. Octagon also represents seniors David West of Xavier and Josh Howard of Wake Forest; both would move up if there weren't any teens in this draft.

"There's no question it would mean more dollars and more exposure," Schwab said of Octagon's clients. "But I'm sure if we had a 19-year old kid in the draft we'd give a different answer. In the long term, there wouldn't be as much of an effect with an age limit, but in the short term there would be. It would just take two to three years to play itself out. If everyone plays by the same rules then it would work."

An age limit would probably hurt international big men more than any other position, according to agent Herb Rudoy. While he would actually benefit from the restriction in this draft with Michael Pietrus probably moving up into the top five, Rudoy also has 18-year-old Brazilian Tiago Splitter (6-9) ready to tantilize the NBA next year.

"If we had put him in this year, he could have gone top six or seven," Rudoy said. "But he didn't want to do that this year. If (an age limit) went through, he would have to wait two more years. The big kids want to be in the NBA. There are no terrific young big men in the United States. So this would impact the draft."

Don't look for a consensus within the NBA, either, when it comes to an age-limit being put in place.

"You'd really have to convince me," said Indiana coach Isiah Thomas, who left Indiana after his sophomore season in 1981. "There are arguments to be made on both sides of the table, but there are a lot of kids who have talent that warrants them being in the NBA. A lot of mistakes are made because of youth, but you would still have to convince me (about an age limit)."

Indiana teammates Jonathan Bender (1999) and Al Harrington (1998) were both under 20 when they were drafted straight out of high school. And while Thomas didn't make the decision to draft either, he said he wouldn't hesitate to draft a player based on talent, regardless of age or nationality. And he's not alone. The current trend is still to take a player who has a good workout or two (Podkolzine, 18), has limited playing time (Tskitishvili, 19), or simply has the size (Tyson Chandler, 18) rather than a more established player (Gilbert Arenas and Carlos Boozer were each second-round picks in the past two drafts).

And that's a big reason why the NBA could shy away from an age limit. The goal is to stockpile talent, or the rights to the talent, at a younger age so teams can have a say in the player's development.

"If they can come in and perform and handle that pressure of playing with the big guys, then why not?" said Suns coach Frank Johnson, who coached the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year Amare Stoudemire, who turned 20 last November. "Everyone else is doing it in tennis and in golf. Why not allow those kids to come? If a kid was able to run a company, they would probably let him do it."

With or without an age limit, the days of a senior-dominated draft are all but over. The draft is younger than ever, but first-round talent rarely stays in college through its senior season. Getting a Tim Duncan or a David Robinson isn't going to happen too often, if at all.

Kenyon Martin was the last senior to be picked No. 1 overall in 2000, while Michael Olowokandi went first overall in 1998. In fact, Shane Battier is the last senior to be taken in the lottery -- going No. 6 overall to the Grizzlies in 2001.

"That's the nature of the draft," Denver Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe said. "If you're going to get that superstar type of talent, they're going to be very young. The stars of today in the U.S. and foreign-born come out very early. Rarely do they make it to be a senior in college. Everybody in the NBA would love it if they went through school and graduated. But that's not the case."

"I go back and forth on this," said Orlando coach Doc Rivers, a product of three years of college at Marquette. "No one talks about age limits in other sports. I don't know why they talk about it in ours. But having said that, as a coach going into my fifth year, I can see the maturity part of it, but not the basketball part. I would love guys to experience college for a year or two just so they can experience life a little bit more."

Pistons coach Larry Brown, a product of the Dean Smith system at North Carolina, would like to see freshmen be ineligible at the NCAA level, as was the case when he played. Freshman eligibility, however, is a dead issue within the NCAA, even with the push for higher graduation rates. The chance of a player being allowed to have five years of eligibility is more likely.

And, if that ever happened, the NBA would be even less likely to push through an age limit.

"As a former player, it's hard for me to comprehend 30 years ago going into the NBA at 18 years old," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. "But as a general manager I don't like walking into a high school gym. I don't like bringing in kids who are 18 or 19 years old for an interview. I don't think it's the right thing to do. It makes our job more difficult, too. I'd like to have four years to evaluate a player.

"We're going to have to see him at some time during his high school career and make a decision. That's what makes it tough on a general manager. But that's a selfish perspective and that's what we have to do. But I'm not sure it's the best thing for the kid."

Until there is a movement on an age limit, high school seniors will continue to test the draft process. Underclassmen will declare for the draft. And, international teenagers will continue to have a dominant presence in the first round.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.