With younger and younger players leaving college early or skipping it altogether to head for the NBA, Commissioner David Stern may want to work with the players' union to institute an age limit for players coming into the league.

"We have the right to set an age limit in the collective bargaining agreement," Stern said over the weekend. "I believe we can work together to come up with something that is legally correct and will withstand legal challenge."

National Basketball Players Association spokesman Dan Wasserman did not return several messages seeking comment.

The changes Stern hopes to make would not occur in time to alter the pool of players available in the 1999 NBA draft, which will be held at MCI Center on June 30. On that day, NBA teams will be able to choose 39 players who had college eligibility remaining, including 11 sophomores, 1 redshirt freshman, 4 freshmen, 2 high schoolers and 9 foreign players 20 years old or younger.

The NBA would be following the path of the NFL, which has a rule requiring players to have been out of high school for three years before they can be drafted. The NFL and the NFL Players Association have agreed to the rule and a league spokesman said it has never been challenged in court.

While it used to be primarily college juniors and a few sophomores who made themselves early entry NBA candidates, the number of younger players who are leaving college after one year or after their senior year of high school has increased in recent years. Duke University, which had never lost a player to the NBA before his eligibility was finished, lost three players -- two sophomores and a freshman -- this season. Blue Devils freshman Corey Meggette wasn't even a starter and ignored Michael Jordan's recommendation that he remain at Duke for at least one more season.

Many NBA coaches and players, club and league executives feel the quality of play is suffering because more and more players -- even the ones taken high in the draft -- are coming into the league unprepared to play professional basketball at a high level.

In the last four drafts, nine high school players have entered their names. Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant have become stars. Taj McDavid and Ellis Richardson were never drafted. Jonathan Bender, a 6-foot-11 forward from Picayune, Miss., and Leon Smith, a 6-10 forward from Chicago, are the high school players who decided they were ready this year.

DeMatha High School Coach Morgan Wootten, who has coached several players who went on to play collegiately and in the NBA, supports Stern's position.

"I think it's a great idea," Wootten said. "The kids would just be much better off for the biggest game that counts -- the game of life -- if they got a couple years past high school to get into something as socially rigorous as the grind of the NBA. It's a whole new world; what a challenge it is for a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old kid. It's still going to be there and they are going to be so much better prepared in every way -- socially, physically and academically.

"You improve so much the first two years out of high school, it's incredible. It would be a win-win situation. There wouldn't be as many sad cases -- if they ever collected them -- of high school kids declaring for the draft and then never getting drafted. I think they would be doing kids a favor, and most importantly, they would be doing the game of basketball a favor. The game of basketball is bigger than high school; it's bigger than college; and it's bigger than the NBA. And best of all, it would be good for those kids."

A lawyer by training, Stern knows full well that any restriction on when players can try to make a living in the NBA might be challenged in court, even if the NFL's rule has not been. In 1969, Spencer Haywood, who had dropped out of the University of Detroit after his sophomore year, sued to be allowed to play professional basketball. A federal judge found in his favor and Haywood joined the Denver Nuggets, who played then in the now-defunct American Basketball Association.

In 1996, just before Bryant and fellow high school player Jermaine O'Neal were chosen in the first round, Haywood told the Raleigh News and Observer that he was concerned by the flow of young players to the NBA.

"It's starting to get pretty frightening to me," Haywood said. "I see a whole group of people focusing on one thing: being a pro basketball player or being a rap star. Perhaps some, like Shaquille O`Neal, can do both. But whether others are ready for the NBA is uncertain."

NCAA President Cedric Dempsey said in March that an NCAA committee was debating a proposal under which "first-round, draft-choice type athletes" in men's and women's basketball would be able to obtain loans of about $20,000 from the NBA after their freshman year and would remain eligible. The money would then be repaid from the player's future earnings.

The NCAA is also considering proposals to limit freshman eligibility in basketball because of poor graduation rates. A secondary concern was that some players were intentionally spending only a year in college before putting their names in for the NBA draft.

Wootten pointed to San Antonio's Tim Duncan and New Jersey's Keith Van Horn as examples of how players are better prepared for the NBA after four years in college and will profit later. Some of the impetus to leave school early is to get into the NBA and get past the mandated salaries for players in their first three seasons, which are also part of the collective bargaining agreement, and then negotiate for more money. However, some players come from poor families and any money is better than no money.

"If you take a look at Duncan and Van Horn and guys like that and you see how much better prepared they were than most guys right out of high school," Wootten said. "I know Garnett made it and Kobe Bryant to some extent, but they are rarities.

"The big contract is not your first one. It's the second one. And if you don't have a good first three years, you're not going to get a big second one. I think it would solve a lot of problems and remove a lot of ills from the game."

Recent High School Players Declaring for NBA Draft

1995: Kevin Garnett, Farragut Academy, Chicago; Minnesota first round, fifth overall

1996: Kobe Bryant, Lower Merion (Ardmore, Pa.); Charlotte first round, 13th overall; Jermaine O'Neal, Eau Claire (Columbia, S.C.); Portland first round, 17th overall; Taj McDavid, Palmeto (S.C.); Not drafted

1997: Tracy McGrady, Mt. Zion (N.C.); Toronto first round, ninth overall

1998: Al Harrington, St. Patrick (N.J.); Indiana first round, 25th overall; Rashard Lewis, Alief-Elsik (Tex.); Seattle second round, 32nd overall; Korleone Young, Hargrave Military Acad. (Va.); Detroit second round, 40th overall; Ellis Richardson, Polytechnic (Calif.); Not drafted

1999: Jonathan Bender, Picayune (Miss.); Leon Smith ML King (Ill.)

CAPTION: "We have the right to set an age limit in the...bargaining agreement," says NBA's David Stern.