How pro basketball has changed

BOYS AMONG MEN: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. By Jonathan Abrams. Crown Archetype. 325 pages. $28.

Kevin Garnett didn’t seem like a pioneer when he was getting pushed around the basketball court at Springfield Park in Mauldin, S.C., as a skinny 13-year-old. But by 18, Garnett was a savvy businessman, a street-smart Chicago kid and the best high school basketball player in America — without the test scores necessary to attend a major college.

“Why not go to a junior college?” Garnett was asked at a 1995 news conference.

“Why go?” he shot back.

With that Garnett entered the NBA draft that year and permanently altered the landscape of professional and college basketball. Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard and LeBron James, among others, followed.

A trend of the very best players going directly from high school to the NBA brought the league unprecedented excitement, and took a toll on team chemistry and maturity. College basketball missed out on great talent. It lacks star continuity even after the 2005 advent of a “one-and-done” compromise that says American players must be 19 and one year removed from high school to be NBA draft-eligible.

Abrams, a former Los Angeles Times and New York Times reporter, does a predominantly good job of nailing the premise of his subtitle. His weave of narrative tales puts the reader on the hip of historic hoop change. But the book would feel less disjointed with chapter headings. A definitive subject examination would have included one more chapter on the impact on the college game, though a look at reinvented recruiting strategy through the habits of former Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury and current Kentucky head coach John Calipari late in the book provides valuable context.

Still, Abrams gets at the hearts and minds of this revolution from a terrific introduction on the late Moses Malone, who became a prep-to-pro trailblazer in 1974, to a closing snapshot of obscure Tony Key. He is a 6-11, 31-year-old former high school star working as a waiter in Bowling Green, Ky., while wondering where his NBA dreams went. Abrams covers the contrast (Tim Duncan staying at Wake Forest for four years and saying “I’ve always thought why should I try to do today what I’ll be better prepared to do a year from now?”) and the crashes (Korleone Young and other young flameouts) and the glory of superstars such as Kobe and LeBron.

And Kevin Garnett, who went from a lightweight South Carolina teen to a 22-year NBA veteran and 15-time All-Star who changed the game.

Reviewer Gene Sapakoff is a Post and Courier sports columnist.