Million Dollar Basketball Babies

Should the sport’s top prospects go to college? Should they even go to high school?

Lance Stephenson’s nickname is “Born Ready”—as in, ready for the NBA. But on a winter night in a tiny gym in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the 6-foot-5 high-school senior mostly looked ready for a time-out—of the preschool variety. Stephenson slumped when teammates failed to pass him the ball, shook his head in disgust when they missed shots, jogged back lazily on defense, and whined about fouls. Stephenson’s other nickname is “Sir Lance-a-lot,” but he seldom looked heroic, and seemed to be doing little to lead his team, three-time defending New York City public-school champion Abraham Lincoln, as it beat host Paul Robeson, 81–72.

Then the final statistics arrived: 38 points and 14 rebounds, including 17 of Lincoln’s deficit-erasing 27 fourth-quarter points. During an after-school practice the next day, Lincoln’s coach, Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, said the performance highlighted Stephenson’s main flaws: impatience and thoughtlessness. Still, Morton was unwavering on the question of ability. I asked how many players he’d seen in his 14 years as a coach at Lincoln who were ready for the NBA, born or otherwise. “Two,” he replied. “Sebastian and Lance.”

Sebastian is Sebastian Telfair, a whippety 5-foot-11 point guard who, in the spring of 2004, landed a Sports Illustrated cover and became one of a record eight high-school seniors chosen in the first round of the NBA draft. That won’t be Stephenson’s destiny, because the NBA has since banned the leap from prom to pro, requiring draft-eligible players to be at least one year removed from their high-school graduating class.

But college might not be Stephenson’s next stop, either. A year ago, Brandon Jennings, a high-school point guard from Los Angeles, signed a pioneering three-year, $1.65 million contract with the Italian professional club Lottomatica Virtus Roma. A few months later, he received a reported $2 million deal with the apparel company Under Armour. Since his signing, scouts for European teams have begun attending high-school games in the U.S., and Under Armour has been sending free sneakers to Stephenson and other potential high-school exports.

In Rome, Jennings is getting a chance to build up more than his bank account. Elite teams in Europe’s top leagues—in Italy, Spain, Russia, Greece—are considered a notch below the NBA but a full cut above the NCAA’s best. The players are grown men, many of them veterans of top U.S. college programs and the NBA. Coaches are hardened tacticians, practices are grueling, and systems of play are complex. Games are more physical than in the NCAA, and seasons are twice as long. NBA scouts pack top contests. “In Europe, they don’t baby you,” said Sonny Vaccaro, who brokered Jennings’s tryout and signing. “You get beat up, sworn at, kicked out of practice. If your character can hold up, you win.”

Vaccaro has been an executive at Nike, Adidas, and Reebok, and he helped make the recruiting and marketing of young players a big business in the past three decades. These days, though, he is crusading against what he considers the NCAA’s phony amateurism and the NBA’s misguided rulemaking. Qualified players, he told me, should be able to earn a good salary playing basketball when they want to, not when the NCAA or NBA decides they can. Over the past year, the families of several high-school seniors have contacted Vaccaro about the European option, he said, and he has identified eight underclassmen, some as young as freshmen, “who are interested when the time comes.” This year or next year, Vaccaro predicted, a player will turn pro and head to Europe after his junior year of high school.

If that seems like one more sign of the basketball apocalypse, consider that many of the Europeans who populate NBA rosters began playing professionally as young as 14. In any case, Vaccaro believes Europe should be a destination only for exceptionally talented and relatively mature players. And Jennings has cautioned that his Italian sojourn hasn’t been one big scoop of gelato: “I don’t want anyone coming over here thinking it’s easy,” he wrote on his Under Armour blog.

Once the basketball machine gets rolling, though, it can be hard to stop. Jennings is expected to opt out of his contract with Lottomatica after this season and enter the NBA draft in June. If he’s a high pick, adolescent interest in playing abroad may rise rapidly.

On the court after practice, Stephenson’s father, Lance Sr., said Kansas, Southern Cal, and St. John’s were recruiting his son. But if he fails to become NCAA-eligible—a legitimate concern, according to people around him—his options will change. No one I talked to seemed confident that Stephenson was emotionally prepared for the professional grind on the Continent. But with the door open, nothing can stop him from dribbling through it, ready or not. “I think he’d be a better pro right now than a college player,” his father said. “Going overseas, it’s not out of the question.”