NBA needs minor league system

The NHL’s system would solve much of what ails professional hoops.

Jon Marthaler

The NHL draft was held last Saturday, a rite of summer few south of the Mason-Dixon Line notice. What wasn’t mentioned from the draft podium, but was almost certainly mentioned in every relevant television report and newspaper column, was the irony of holding a draft four months before an almost certain work stoppage. At this point it’s pretty much an article of faith the stoppage is going to happen, last a while, and be awful for everybody involved.

Knowing this, more than a few NHL teams drafted with 2008, not 2005, in mind. Blake Wheeler, a Breck High School standout – who has yet to play his senior season of high school hockey – was taken with the fifth pick by Phoenix. Wheeler, expected to be a late first-round pick, has signed a letter of intent to play for the Gophers, a team he won’t play for until at least 2005-2006. He’s also only 17 years old and won’t turn 18 until late August – just in time to beat the September 15 deadline to be included in this season’s draft.

NHL teams are taking outrageously young players with early picks in the draft, despite the fact we can predict their future accomplishment with almost the same success rate as we can predict the weather. What does the NHL think it is, the NBA?

The NBA also held its draft last week. A record number of first-round picks were spent on high schoolers. The Orlando Magic used the first pick overall to select Dwight Howard, one of these recent graduates. According to experts, Howard has limitless potential, and may someday be an NBA star.

Howard will be seen on NBA benches this winter. Wheeler, who also has limitless star potential, will be seen on Minnesota State High School League benches this winter.

The difference between the draft policies is pretty simple. Hockey teams can take kids straight out of high school, but once drafted they can opt to play college hockey. Those who don’t want to study can head to the NHL’s established minor league system. In basketball, drafted high schoolers head directly to the NBA and are thrown to the sharks. It’s everybody into the pool, sink or swim. For every success like Kevin Garnett there is a Kwame Brown, drafted early but overwhelmed and eventually eaten alive.

Meanwhile, fans complain about the decline of play in college basketball, as the best players jump straight to the pros. Likewise, fans bemoan the decline in NBA play thanks to the high school invasion.

I look over at hockey and wonder. Why is this necesary? Why can’t basketball adopt a hockey-like minor league system? Why is it hockey, supposedly less popular, supports an extensive minor league system, while basketball is minor league-less?

Hockey may have labor problems, but it offers a prety quick and simple fix for what ails the NBA. Wheeler will finish high school, go on to Minnesota, where he’ll be able to live (at least for a while) like a normal college kid. If he plays for Phoenix, it’ll be when he’s good and ready.

Howard, on the other hand, will go to Orlando, Fla., where he’s got to figure out how to live on his own and play basketball professionally. Not only that, Howard is now on the worst team in the league, perhaps carrying the added burden of being the franchise showpiece.

Which system is fairer to the player? Which system is better for the fan? Which system is better for the college game? Which system is better for the pro game? Hockey’s system is ahead on every count.

This brings up the important question that should be asked of David Stern and the NBA brass: why not make some a change when the solution is staring you right in the face? They don’t even have to look far for the roadmap. Hockey’s got it right already.

Jon Marthaler welcomes comments at [email protected]