Don't be misled by the likelihood of a record eight high school seniors being picked in the first round of next month's NBA draft.
They're not going straight to the NBA to play right away. (see: LeBron James)
They're skipping college because they can and the money is guaranteed. (see: Jermaine O'Neal)
"If they were all concerned about being the best possible player they could be, then they'd go to college," said Dave Babcock, the director of scouting for the Milwaukee Bucks.
"It's all about the money. There's no doubt about that."
If Sebastian Telfair, Al Jefferson, Robert Swift and Josh Smith wanted to play 30-plus minutes a game, each would be on the campuses of Louisville, Arkansas, USC and Indiana, respectively, this fall. Instead, they'll each be paid handsomely and on their way to even bigger paydays four years from now.
It's safe to say none will look back and say they missed out on the college experience. Jefferson still hasn't signed with an agent but is expected to stay in the draft.
"Most kids just want to get into the NBA," said Seagoville High (Texas) center LaMarcus Aldridge, a borderline first-round pick who could still play for Texas next season, but is testing the draft process without an agent.
"I can't speak for everyone else, but for me it's about playing time. I would hope I could get in and make an impact. But others see it as their one chance to take advantage of (the draft). Jermaine O'Neal worked his way up and now he's a big-time star. A lot of teams take chances on high school kids."
Dorell Wright, who signed with DePaul and is protecting his amateur status by also not signing with an agent (yet), is expected to go in the back end of the first round if he stays in the draft.
"The NBA is looking at potential and is going after the younger players," Wright said. "You just don't know what's going to happen in a year or two or four years. And, yes, for some guys it's a financial thing."
Quantity over quality
Look past the numbers and this isn't the draft's best-ever high school class. It's not even close.
But what distinguishes 2004 from other classes since the prep-to-pros floodgates opened in 1999 is its depth at two positions -- point guard and center. Larry Harris, the general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks, said this high school class is strong because it has centers and point guards, the NBA's two most needy positions.
But there is no LeBron in this class, or even a lock to be a starter, let alone a star, next season. There might not even be a Kobe Bryant, O'Neal or Tracy McGrady -- a player who took a few seasons to become a star after coming out of high school.
Who knows? But NBA teams are willing to find out. And that's why high school seniors are willing to oblige.
"Everyone is getting advised to go in and get a guaranteed contract," said Phoenix general manager Bryan Colangelo. "The NBA looks like the bad guy, but the system is flawed."
To this end, Colangelo would like to see a summit take place among the NBA hierarchy, shoe company executives, agents and the NCAA to deal with the problem. It's no secret NBA commissioner David Stern would like to see an age limit put into the league's next collective bargaining agreement. But that is still a reach, especially since it would have kept James and Carmelo Anthony out if it were in place a year ago.
But the fear of a potential age limit has forced players to take a closer look at jumping into the draft, according to Colangelo.
"There is a concern among agents that it could be a missed opportunity to get them in now," Colangelo said. "It would take a while to phase that in, but the pure notion of it has prompted some to put their names in the draft."
Tracking the teen scene
So the NBA continues to feed itself on teenagers in the U.S. and abroad. And whether or not the practice is viewed as preying on the young via first-round contracts, the league does so because teams don't see anyone else worthy of filling the spots.
In 1995, Kevin Garnett was the exception to the rule when he went straight from Chicago's Farragut High School to the Minnesota Timberwolves. A year later, Bryant and O'Neal doubled the first-round bounty of preps, while McGrady (1997) and Harrington (1998) were once again the only high school seniors selected in the first round. The Class of 1999 produced the first true first-round "bust" when Leon Smith went No. 29 to San Antonio and was never heard from again. Bender, meanwhile, went No. 5 to Toronto.
Then came the new millennium, and with it, the NBA draft's new world order.
Kwame Brown became the first high school senior to be chosen No. 1 overall when Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards deemed the Glynn Academy (Ga.) forward the organization's future. But Brown was just the start to a first round that saw Tyson Chandler (Dominguez H.S., Calif.) go No. 2 to the Clippers and Eddy Curry of Thornwood High (Ill.) taken No. 4 by Chicago. Cleveland also used its lottery pick at No. 8 on DeSagana Diop of Oak Hill Academy (Va.).
Four preps in the first eight picks. Yes, the draft would never be the same.
Which brings us back to this year, when the number is expected to reach an all-time high of eight high school seniors chosen in the first round.
So why so many teens in '04? For starters, there are spots available in the draft. Babcock said this year's draft has been slowly depleted by underclassmen bolting college the past few seasons. And with a lack of worthy college seniors (just three are projected to be selected in the first round June 24), high school seniors might as well take a shot at filling those spots -- as well as the usual crop of underclassmen and international prospects. (A total of 94 underclassmen declared for this year's draft, 56 underclassmen and 38 international players.)
And that's why the NBA will take the gamble, hoping that Dwight Howard, Shaun Livingston, J.R. Smith, Josh Smith, Jefferson, Telfair, Swift and Wright turn out to be at the very least complementary players in two seasons, stars in three to four.
While hearing Stein call the names of nine high school seniors isn't a stretch, the first-round total could rise to nine if someone takes a flyer on Aldridge. The big man's health, however, could prevent him from staying in the draft.
Swift will officially become a professional within the next couple of weeks. Arn Tellem of SFX confirmed Thursday that Swift would remain in the draft and sign on with the powerful agency. The 7-foot center from Bakersfield High (Calif.) is projected to be a late first-round pick.
Livingston, Jefferson and Wright are expected to follow Swift's lead before the deadline for underclassmen to withdraw (June 17). All three are likely first-round locks. Livingston could go as high as the top five.
The scary thing about this year's draft is the number of high school seniors in the first round could have reached double figures if Rudy Gay (Connecticut) and Randolph Morris (Kentucky) had decided to skip college.
Dollars and 'sense'
Robert Swift's father, Bruce, said it makes more sense for his son to skip college, and not just for the money. If the NBA is Swift's ultimate goal, why not get on-the-job training with an NBA team?
"Why learn the college rules and change his game when he can get to the league and skip that step?" Bruce Swift said. "Hopefully, he'll get floor time."
Bruce Swift said the financial security of a first-round contract is for Robert, not him or the Swift family. But he can't deny the three years of guaranteed money is a security blanket for his son.
"It allows them to prove themselves and work hard in practice, rather than having to go through it as a second-rounder (without a guaranteed deal)," Bruce Swift said. "He's worked hard for this and this is his reward."
Allowing an 18-year-old to sit on its bench for one, two or three seasons isn't the prevailing attitude of every NBA team. One NBA player personnel director who didn't want to be identified called the influx of high school seniors in this draft "a joke."
"We don't have time to deal with young guys," the player personnel director said. "Why go there?"
One team willing to "go there" is Boston, which is intrigued by Swift, Jefferson, Wright and other teens. Like last year, Boston has multiple picks in the first round, which makes it easier to take a chance on a high school senior. Danny Ainge, the team's executive director of basketball operations, saw fit to add Perkins to the Celtics' roster last year through a draft-night trade with Memphis.
But Ainge said the Bulls and Clippers are finding out how hard it is to build a team with young guys. Cleveland did the smart thing by surrounding James with veterans.
Then again, "LeBron is unique," Ainge said.
And, like we said, there is no James in this draft.
And even Ainge isn't sure the NBA is sending the right message with eight high school seniors being discussed as first-round picks.
"(The message) is not a good one," Ainge said. "It's a dangerous message for some."
As for the future, the class of 2005 isn't expected to produce a first-round pick. In fact, the draft could be void of a high school senior for the first time since 1994.
But it won't stop teenagers from declaring.
"I was told last year that this year's high school draft wasn't all that good," Ainge said. "Then I started hearing later in the summer that there was going to be some guys coming out. Livingston wasn't considered a guy who was going to go in the draft. Having just (Josh) Smith and Howard would have been a normal high school (draft) class. Now everybody is jumping on the bandwagon.
"The fact that the college senior and junior classes are all depleted gave the opening for the high school players."
So, with eight high school seniors slotted into first-round spots, who'll fill the other 21 spots? Again, only three college seniors -- Saint Joseph's Jameer Nelson, Oregon's Luke Jackson and BYU's Rafael Araujo -- may go in the first round. There could be as many as eight foreign players selected. That leaves 10 spots for college underclassmen.
The bottom line: Twenty-nine players are going to be picked and each is going to get paid. And whether they are high school seniors, underclassmen, international players or college seniors, it doesn't seem to matter if they're going to play ... at least right away.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.