NCAA Basketball Tournament
For Durant, Riches Deferred
Thursday, March 15, 2007
AUSTIN -- Kevin Durant makes a dual impression on the basketball court. The first impression is one of sheer talent -- here is the bounding, net-ripping, honest-to-God real thing, unmistakably a potential great. The second impression is one of youth. Durant, a University of Texas freshman from Suitland, only turned 18 in September and doesn't even have his driver's license. He's so young he has only had time to get one tattoo. It's over his heart, and it's his mother's name.
The juxtaposition of weedy youngness and capacious talent in a 6-foot-9 frame has made Durant at once the most celebrated and argued-over college player in the country. Previously, a savant like Durant would have already gone to the NBA. Instead, he has become a test case of the league's controversial new age minimum.
With the initiation this season of a league policy restricting entry to players 19 or older and a year removed from high school, Durant was forced to delay the call of professionalism and enroll at Texas, where he has discovered something interesting: He likes being an undergraduate.
"I mean, in a couple more years I'll be grown up," he says, "but right now I'm glad I'm a kid and I'm going through this college thing, and I don't have to deal with those pressures or anything like that."
For at least one paradisiacal spring, Durant will test himself against his peers in the NCAA tournament, which begins on Thursday, instead of against his elders in the pros. The age limit was intended get the NBA out of the child-rearing business, to see that prodigies aren't ruined psychologically by too-early entry to a league in which "playing" entails a grind of 82 games, 41 of them on the road. Although some of the league's greatest young stars successfully leapt straight from high school -- Cleveland's LeBron James was named rookie of the year in 2004 -- there are countless anonymous failures. The league has found that professionalism doesn't necessarily accelerate adolescent growth, but can retard it. The hope is that an age restriction will make for more skilled and mature players.
The NBA's motive isn't altruistic: While Durant and a handful of other precocious freshmen such as center Greg Oden of Ohio State play out their supercharged collegiate season, NBA teams have had a chance to judge their abilities. Drafting them will be less of a guessing game, and lessen the chances of wasting a top pick on a spectacular failure.
"I think it's working," NBA Commissioner David Stern says. "I'm not one of our scouts but I would gather that by the end of the NCAAs our teams will have seen some extraordinary young men play against accelerated talent and be able to make good judgments. And that the youngsters will have grown in confidence both on and off court, and acquired skills that will make them better able to do their jobs."
But critics charge that while the rule might be good for the NBA, it has unpalatable consequences at the collegiate level. Texas Tech Coach Bobby Knight has flatly called it one of the "worst" rules he has ever seen, arguing that it puts coaches in the position of recruiting players they know won't be in school for more than a year, and that NBA aspirants have small incentive to go to class, especially in the spring semester.
Although Durant claims he is undecided whether to leave school this spring, the widely held assumption is that he will be a "one-and-done" collegian, because with a single declaration he can command a multimillion-dollar NBA contract and even larger shoe endorsement deal. According to Knight, the presence of such players warps the mission of universities, which is to provide higher education, not a lily pad to the pros. "That, I think, has a tremendous effect on the integrity of college sports," Knight said earlier this season.
But supporters of the rule believe rerouting players to college for at least one year is beneficial. NCAA President Myles Brand says that while it's not perfect, it's preferable to no restriction. He argues that forcing high schoolers to focus on admission to college instead of the NBA will have a trickle-down effect and reemphasize academics at the prep level. "You can't get in unless you prepare," he says, "So I think this will lead many more young men to prepare."
Brand also believes the attention devoted to Durant is misplaced. The rule is really aimed at players who won't make it to the pros. "I'm looking at it quite differently, I'm looking at it from the points of view of the vast majority of those who play Division I basketball, who won't ever go to the NBA," Brand says. "Hundreds, maybe thousands, would be better off preparing for college."
It's too early to say who is right, or to calculate what the real effects of the age limit will be. But there is one person for whom the rule seems to be an unqualified success: Durant. Instead of languishing on an NBA bench, the college audience has watched as he has steadily bloomed and is a candidate to be the first freshman ever named NCAA player of the year. He is a shooter of breathtaking suppleness, a slasher with tomahawking power and a defender with a formidable 7-4 wingspan. His averages of 25.6 points and 11.3 rebounds per game are mere suggestions of what he's capable. Ten performances of 30-plus points per game and are probably truer gauges.