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Boys Among Men' looks back at prep-to-pro era

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Book recounts the decade-long influx of high schoolers to the NBA

As this year's NCAA basketball tournament gets set to tip off, we're going to be deluged with talk about March Madness. One of the terms that we're going to hear a lot is 'one and done,' describing players who thanks to the NBA's age requirement are spending the requisite one year in college before declaring for the draft and heading off into the world of professional hoops.

But it wasn't always that way.

Jonathan Abrams's new book 'Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution' (Crown Archetype, $28) is an in-depth look at the decade that redefined the NBA draft and, in many ways, the very nature of pro basketball.

There had been a handful of high school players who made the leap to the NBA in the past, but while Moses Malone became a star, guys like Bill Willoughby and Darryl Dawkins served more as cautionary tales, talented players whose too-fast ascendance resulted in a failure to capitalize on their vast potential.

It took years before another player opted for the draft directly out of the prep ranks. In 1995, Kevin Garnett declared and was immediately met with skepticism. Conventional wisdom held that high school players simply weren't physically or emotionally prepared for the rigors of the NBA. However, Garnett's immense talent and solid work ethic won out when he was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick in the draft.

In the 10 years that followed, the grooming of high school players became a cottage industry. Elite invitational camps became the best way to showcase a player's skills on a wide stage. NBA scouts started haunting high school gyms. Shoe company representatives were throwing money around. Shady agents and assorted hangers-on insinuated themselves into the lives of players.

There were a lot of successes. The year after Garnett came out saw another pair of high schoolers drafted in the first round Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal. The next year brought Tracy McGrady into the league. Later years saw the emergence of stars like LeBron James and Dwight Howard and Amar'e Stoudemire.

But there were some less luminous lights, as well as some outright busts. Players like Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry never lived up to the hype, while guys like Korleone Young and Leon Smith are basically the answers to sad trivia questions, if they're remembered at all.

The high school-to-NBA pipeline was shut off in 2005, when as part of the newly-negotiated collective bargaining agreement, the league imposed new rules that stated a player must be at least 19 and at least one full year removed from high school before being drafted. This led to the aforementioned 'one-and-done' phenomenon, in which elite players play in college for one year before moving on.

The draft is a crapshoot in any sport under any circumstances; the truth is that there are no guarantees that any player will become what he is projected to be. But during this stretch, the draft became even more volatile and unpredictable, with teams trying desperately to project the future growth and skill development of teenagers. With more variables comes more variation, so it's no surprise that there are some swings and misses.

Abrams has done some deep diving, to be sure. He has written what certainly reads like the definitive work on this particular era an era that, even in the midst of rapid growth, still desperately sought for a worthy follow-up to the extended dominance of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Through scores of interviews, Abrams has really captured the free-wheeling spirit of this unique stretch of NBA history; it's truly a compelling read.

The behind-the-scenes stuff regarding the time's biggest hits Garnett, Bryant, James is plenty interesting on its own, but it's the stories of the also-rans and never-weres that really resonate. In truth, there were relatively few prep players drafted who didn't manage serviceable NBA careers, but that only makes the true busts that much more impactful, both in terms of their teams and their own personal narratives. Ultimately, the massive hype that accompanied many of these selections resulted in an outsized perception of their relative value on both ends of the spectrum, stars and scrubs alike.

Abrams displays not only a clear passion for the NBA, but a particularly insightful understanding of the particular era explored here. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be addressed, but Abrams manages to smoothly transition from idea to idea, from player to player. The understanding of how the process evolved and how the league itself evolved in turn is what moves the needle on this one from solid to very good.

'Boys Among Men' is a wonderful snapshot of an era, one whose like we probably won't see again. It was a time when all the rules changed and everybody players, coaches, owners and fans was just trying to keep up. NBA junkies will eat this one up, but any fan of quality sportswriting will enjoy this engaging and entertaining read.


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