Cradle robbers

If you're old enough to drive to the basket, you can be a University of Kentucky basketball commitment ... even if you aren't old enough to drive to school.

That seems to be the thought process of Wildcats coach Billy Gillispie. He recently offered scholarships to three 15-year-olds – two of whom already have publicly committed to play (eventually) for the Big Blue.

The commitments are from Michael Avery, an eighth-grader from Thousand Oaks, Calif., and Vincent Zollo, a ninth-grader from Greenfield, Ohio. Reportedly, Gillispie also has offered a scholarship to Jeremiah Davis III, a ninth-grader from Muncie, Ind.

Tennessee fans who find this laughable might want to stifle their guffaws a bit. It seems the Vol staff also recruited Zollo and continues to pursue Davis, along with Ohio State and Indiana.

Has the hoops world gone mad? Probably. Potential routinely trumps production in big-time basketball. The key question is no longer "What have you done?" but "What could you do?"

This alarming trend probably began in 1974, when the Utah Jazz selected Petersburg (Va.) high school senior Moses Malone in Round 3 of the American Basketball Association Draft. The Jazz eventually became a part of the NBA and Malone eventually became a three-time Most Valuable Player.

One year after Utah selected Malone, the Philadelphia 76ers set another precedent by picking a high schooler in Round 1. Darryl Dawkins of Orlando, Fla., taken with the fifth pick overall in '75, helped Philly win a league title in 1983.

The quest for untapped talent peaked in 2001, when three of the top four NBA Draft picks were high school seniors. Florida signee Kwame Brown (Brunswick, Ga.) went No. 1, followed by Tyson Chandler (Compton, Calif.) at No. 2 and Eddy Curry (South Holland, Ill.) at No. 4.

As more high schoolers began declaring for the draft, more pro teams began investing first-round picks in the future rather than the present. Nine prep seniors opted for the 2004 NBA Draft, and eight of them went in the first round. The other, Tennessee signee Jackie Butler of McComb, Miss., was not selected.

When eight more high schoolers picked the NBA over college in 2005, the negative publicity that followed forced the league to decree that a prep player must attend one year of college before becoming draft eligible.

The result? The draft is now filled with 19-year-old college freshmen, instead of 18-year-old high school seniors. Six of the top 12 picks in the 2007 NBA Draft were first-year collegians. Greg Oden (Ohio State) was taken No. 1, Kevin Durant (Texas) No. 2, Mike Conley (Ohio State) No. 4, Brandan Wright (North Carolina) No. 8, Spencer Hawes (Washington) No. 10 and Thaddeus Young (Georgia Tech) No. 12.

Since much of what happens in college sports filters down from the pro level, it isn't surprising that Kentucky and other major universities are expanding the youth movement by recruiting 15-year-old middle-schoolers.

Question: Does loaning a kid your disposable razor for his first shave constitute a violation of the "extra benefits" rule?

I'm guessing it won't be long before college recruiters are hanging around recreation centers to watch pre-teens showcasing their skills. You can almost hear the conversations now:

SCOUT A: Who are you looking at?

SCOUT B: The kid with his left knee wrapped. He wrecked his bike last week. Who are you checking out?

SCOUT A: The lanky one wearing No. 50. He's tall for his age, and we think he could be special by the time he hits puberty.

Next step: Targeting toddlers.

Don't laugh. Some of those babies can really dribble.

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