“The rule as it is today was basically established for the NBA teams, and their general managers,” he told me. “It’s there to protect them, so that they’re able to see these guys when they’re more mature and project where they will go.” Though Abrams talked to many players who perhaps recklessly jumped to the pros straight from high school and remain troubled by the decision, he acknowledged that for all-stars like James or Bryant, the “one-and-done” restriction would have simply hurt their earning power, as college athletes can’t be compensated.
The non-success stories “all started at the same origin point,” Abrams said. “They were all in high school, all forecasted to be NBA stars, and then at some point they veered off. The ones who didn’t make it, they’re now in their early to mid-30s, and it’s a cloud hanging over them, that their chance at fame and fortune is eternally lost.” He’s particularly interested in the way these players essentially peaked as high schoolers and live today in a kind of “suspended reality,” still trying to figure out who they are.
Boys Among Men’s exhaustively researched and reported chapters jump between the biggest prep-to-pro successes (Garnett, Bryant, James, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire), the players who had to struggle for years in the NBA wilderness before making it big (Gerald Green, Shaun Livingston, Tyson Chandler), and perceived “busts” like Kwame Brown, who was the first high schooler picked #1 (in 2001, by the Washington Wizards). It’s loaded with details, such as Billy Donovan (who was the head coach of the University of Florida basketball team at the time) recalling a heartbreaking conversation with Brown over whether he should declare for the draft.
Brown had committed to attend Florida, but backed out when he realized he could go first in the draft, which would guarantee him the kind of salary that would help his impoverished mother and siblings. “In his heart of hearts, he really wanted to come to college,” Donovan told Abrams (the chapter was excerpted on ESPN). “I think he knew he was not ready. He had to go. He was really doing it for his family.” Brown’s decision wasn’t as tragic as Young’s—he spent 12 years in the league, mostly as a backup player—but he’s still regarded as one of the biggest draft disappointments in NBA history, burdened by hype he couldn’t match.
“Some of it was right place, right time, and some of it was the right organization,” Abrams said of the wide variety of successes and failures. “One of the common characteristics I found was that guys like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant saw getting drafted and entering the NBA as the first step in a long process.” He said those players were content to focus on training and practicing in their early years, often deferring to more-famous players on the team. Others saw the mere fact that they had entered the league and signed a big contract as an indication that they’d “made it,” and consequently didn’t focus on the extra development needed to stay afloat in the pros.