IT'S GETTING LATE EARLY FOR THE FIRST WAVE OF PREP-TO-PRO STARS.
WE THINK OF HIM AS INVINCIBLE, A warrior able to play through anything: broken and dislocated fingers, excruciating back spasms, sprained ankles. We look at his age (31) and tireless work ethic and assume he'll give us four, five, maybe six more years of greatness. We remember how Michael Jordan, Jerry West, Reggie Miller and Julius Erving thrived in their mid-30s and figure Kobe Bryant still has plenty of NBA basketball ahead of him.
Maybe. But maybe not.
Back when the flood of high school players going into the NBA draft began, in the mid-1990s, a question circulated through the NBA's front offices: Would the teens have extra-long careers, or are all players limited to a certain number of NBA miles, regardless of when the odometer starts running? Now, as yesterday's prep phenoms become today's cagey vets, we're starting to see evidence of an answer. In hip-hop parlance, 30 may be the new 20, but in the NBA, Jay-Z's math doesn't compute. The bodies of many of the prep-to-pros seem much older than their birth certificates would indicate. Even with the NBA's age limit, one-and-dones may find themselves in the same state of premature graying one day.
Tracy McGrady is only 30, but he and his game began breaking down two seasons ago. People keep expecting Kevin Garnett, at 33, to shake off the leg injuries that have dogged him the past two seasons and return to his energetic, above-the-rim style. That is more of a pipe dream every day. Seen Jermaine O'Neal play lately? At 31, he looks more like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did at 41. And Rashard Lewis' numbers have dropped in each of the past three seasons. Not even lesser-and younger-players are immune to the march of time. It has been several seasons since 27-year-old prep-to-pros Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry have been healthy, let alone nightly contributors.
"These guys are aging in dog years," an Eastern Conference scout says. "The wear and tear on the body is incredible. You're talking about the strain of travel, the strain of games, the strain of practicing. Nobody has paid attention because these guys are still young age-wise and they think they've got a long time left. No, they don't. There's an expiration date on your body and nobody, not even Kobe, is an exception."
Ah yes, Kobe. He's still arguably the game's top player, and he is clearly in better shape than his brethren mentioned above. But he has been banged up all season. Sure, anyone can break a finger, but he's also suffered back spasms and an ankle sprain that, while not terribly severe, caused him to miss five games. Before writing off his ailments as knocks any player can suffer at any age, we have to at least consider the notion that this is a sign of things to come. After all, of the nine players who entered the NBA directly out of high school between 1995 and 1999, Kobe and Al Harrington, who just turned 30, are the only ones whose games played haven't undergone a substantial drop-off.
What people don't seem to recognize is Bryant has already had a full career-and not just in terms of historic achievements. He entered March having played 1,178 games, including the postseason. That's more than Jordan played with the Bulls, and more than West, George Gervin, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Elgin Baylor, Joe Dumars and Oscar Robertson played in their whole careers. Only a few of the all-time greats at Bryant's position-Miller, Erving, John Havlicek and Clyde Drexler-logged more pro games than he has, and all of them began to experience an appreciable decline after completing roughly the same number of games Bryant has.
"This is just a theory based on nearly 20 years of observation, but there seems to be a certain number of athletic minutes in a body," says T.O. Souryal, who is in his 18th season as the Mavericks' team physician. "And the athletic clock will probably hit earlier for guys who came straight out of high school because of the total exposures to NBA games and practices."
What's interesting is that the four perimeter players who have logged the most minutes in NBA history-Miller, Havlicek, John Stockton and Gary Payton-all played at least three years of college ball. The current iron man among guards, Jason Kidd, entered the league at 21 with two seasons of NCAA experience. Steve Nash, at 36, seems to be ignoring his age, but he was a four-year college player. He has actually appeared in 82 fewer pro games than Kobe. It's true that none of the guys who have aged gracefully featured the high-flying athleticism of many of the kids who joined up straight out of high school.
But more to the point, while Kobe & Co. were playing 82 games (many of them back-to-back), practicing three hours a day and landing in some city at 3 a.m. before waking for an 11 a.m. workout, college players were playing 30-40 games a season and practicing less. By the time they turned pro, at 21 or 22, their bodies were seasoned for the rigors of the NBA. Their teen counterparts never got that chance.
"When you come into the league at 18, your body is still developing," says trainer Tim Grover, who has worked with Jordan, T-Mac and Dwyane Wade. "You're not even fully grown. When you start taking on that much impact at such an early age, it definitely has a negative effect on the body."
It is conventional wisdom to say the 25-year-old LeBron James has an eternity left to chase championships. But James, in his seventh season, had already played 592 games through February. That's 324 more than Jordan had under his belt at 25. LeBron is already getting up there in basketball years. "He's not quite as young as people think,'' Grover says. "He's a physical specimen that I haven't seen before in this sport, so he has a chance to be on the other side of the curve. But he plays a lot of minutes, he plays year-round, and the way he plays-attacking the basket, absorbing contact, blocking shots-puts extra stress on the body. Hopefully, it won't catch up to him."
James' size and strength would seem to work in his favor. When he entered the NBA he was physically as close to a man as any 18-year-old can be, and that allowed him to do what no other high school prodigy has done-average 20.9 ppg the season after his prom. The one prep-to-pro who had an unusually long career, Moses Malone, also had an outsize physique. The 6'10" Malone played until he was 40, although his last All-Star caliber season came at 34.
Of course, today's players have the benefit of all sorts of aids and amenities Malone didn't. Improved nutrition, strength training, technology, charter flights and five-star hotels go a long way toward easing the grind. But even with all those luxuries, a guy like T-Mac, who continues to struggle in his return from microfracture knee surgery, just smiles when asked if his body is as young as that of another 30-year-old ballplayer. "I've got a lot of mileage on my body," the 13-year vet says with a laugh.
Kobe and LeBron have proved they can do almost anything on a basketball court. But turning back the odometer may be too much to expect from either of them.
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