New Year, New Rules, Big Adjustment

There's something a little different this year on the high school circuit and it's put a unique spin on the scene. The lack of preps to the pros talk this time of the year is noticeably absent.

Here we are, 6 months from the NBA Draft, 2 months after the early signing period has ended. We've ranked the recruiting classes, fan bases are ecstatic about their signees and all is well on the college campuses of Ohio State and North Carolina, the two biggest winners when it comes to 2006 recruits.

All this harmony with big time seniors and their future college programs is great for the game of college basketball. The NCAA has an embarrassment of riches headed its way to promote next season and that hasn't happened in quite a while. We should all feel pretty good about the state of the game. But, something's missing.

After years of watching America's elite high school players shuffle off to instant riches from high school to the pros as disappointed programs wonder ‘what if,' and while early signees put on ball caps and shake hands at the podium with David Stern, this year is different. Maybe not to everyone, but to some it just feels a little off. It's going to take some getting used to the stability of a signature from a recruit.

See, back in the day (like a year ago), post-Christmas events littered with NBA-caliber prospects would serve as fuel for draft speculation. It wasn't but a year ago that Louis Williams' sub-par City of Palms Classic appearance basically took him out of the first round of the draft. During that same event, Martell Webster was met with mixed reviews from NBA scouts. With each rumor cast, Dennis Felton and Lorenzo Romar were left pondering the percentages of actually getting a chance to coach their signees.

Washington, which signed Webster last year and Spencer Hawes ('s No. 3 prospect this season) would have been sweating out another spring decision and that's never fun. Instead, Washington assistant Jim Shaw says life is different.

"It just makes it easier to plan your team, especially when they have great grades. You know for at least a year or two that you've got somebody. Lorenzo truly believed that Martell was coming to the very end. That made it difficult to plan your team. We truly felt he was coming until May or so.

"I think that's why it's a good proposal. It makes everybody's jobs easier. The pros don't have to sit there and figure it out and it simplifies everybody's life.

In year's past, the next 4 months would be littered with chatter about who was staying in school, who was entering into the draft. It was wild and rampant speculation. Sometimes, even the littlest detail would fuel the talk of an early entry. Who knew requesting a game schedule could cause such a stir.

"All it would take is one or two (NBA) teams to call in for a schedule or come down and watch a practice and that would get the whole place spun out of control," Connecticut associate head coach Tom Moore said.

The point being, there was constant speculation about who was in the draft, where were they going, who improved their stock and which general manager was in Jackson, Miss., watching Monta Ellis. It made for great water cooler chat. Unfortunately, it also led to some suspect decisions. Those decisions, for the most part, have resulted in college basketball getting stronger as it retakes the No. 1 option slot for prospects.

"I think it's refreshing," Moore said. "In our business so few of us think that these kids are ready. When they're talking about (the jump), 9 college coaches out of 10, our first reaction is ‘that kid could use a year or two.' It just doesn't seem to be the first thing on every kid's mind. Even if they are only thinking about college for a year it's good to have it in their minds about going to school and that's good."

Again, good for college basketball, not so good for college hoops junkie who is addicted to hitting the "refresh" button on his internet home page to get the latest dope on early entrants from high school.

Like it or not, in retrospect, to the fan who didn't have a stake in the prospect, it peaked your interest in the high school kids. I mean, Andrew Bynum. This guy goes from AAU afterthought to Nike Camp star to the surprise pick of the Los Angeles Lakers. In the process, he broke the hearts of UConn fans across America as they wondered what in the world happened to their introverted signee who blew up from the beginning of high school season to the draft? Bynum's decision making process carried us through the winter months and gave us something to chat about.

It's different this year. There will be no Andrew Bynum. NBA scouts won't go to the McDonald's All-American game, watch a few practices and convince Ndi Ebi that he's suited to make the leap. Heck, NBA scouts aren't even allowed to attend high school games this year, unless it's a prep school kid like Davon Jefferson who is, by rule, eligible for the draft.

"Davon Jefferson is a case study," one college assistant said. "He's the guinea pig."

During the fall, the behind the scenes talk was that Jefferson had his eyes set on making the leap. Frankly, his performances this season at The Patterson School haven't been draft worthy. What he does this spring is anyone's guess. He's simply a kid who has been affected by the new rule and is worth following, especially since its difficult to get a straight answer out of anyone if Paul Harris is draft eligible or not but that's another story.

"It's sort of the calm before the storm to me," Moore said. "I still don't think anyone has quite explored loopholes and figured out which ones work and which ones won't. It seems like every rule people make there is a reaction from a pocket of people that want to make it fit their situation. In my mind, how is it going to play out in terms of the first few guys who go to prep school? Will some guys actually sit out or go to Europe. I just get the feeling that no one has figured it out yet."

While Jefferson is the "guinea pig" or at least could be for the prep school to the pros route, might O.J. Mayo be the true litmus test for the process. Here's a guy who is marketable, can sell tickets and who knows what his global appeal is a year from now.

Would Mayo really want to go to college and not get paid? Would he find the overseas route interesting and profitable? Would a shoe company truly pay a guy big money to sit out a year, work out and get ready for the league? Who knows? It could happen but we're a year away from finding out.

Don't get me wrong. The current senior class has been amazing to watch as they finish out their high school careers. Guys like Greg Oden, Brandan Wright and Jon Scheyer have delivered some legendary performances in the last month and seem to be really motivated, unlike past senior classes with their eyes on the draft. This bunch is living up to the hype and has injected the fun back into the game.

This past December was the most competitive month I've seen in years on the circuit. More than once I took inventory on what I was witnessing and was thankful to be in the building. For someone who covers high school basketball prospects full-time, it's been an enjoyable season.

The average college basketball fan has a lot to be thankful for as we look toward next year. Maybe not having to listen to teenagers discuss their draft status is simply a new perk to a fan's job; an aspect that just takes a little getting used to.

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