The suggestion may seem ridiculous, especially coming from someone who needed just six weeks to determine college was not for him.

Yet Jazz owner Larry H. Miller is firm in his belief that there should be a minimum age requirement in the NBA, and he does not stop where even most of the issue's most-ardent proponents do.

"I'm a strong advocate of a 22-year-old limit," Miller said. "I'm about the only one that is, I think."

Miller won't get his way on the admittedly far-reaching 22.

Soon, though, even the brightest of high school stars — regardless of their maturity, physical or otherwise — might be banned from jumping straight to the NBA.

"We have proposed a raising of the minimum age beyond its present 18," NBA commissioner David Stern has said.

Heading into Friday labor talks between the league and its players association, the NBA was proposing 19.

Even if accepted by the union, the rule wouldn't go into effect before the June 28 NBA Draft.

That is why the Jazz had one prep sensation, Martell Webster of Seattle, in to audition Friday, and why they plan to have another, Gerald Green of Houston, in on Tuesday.

An increased age provision is hardly the only topic being discussed in current collective bargaining negotiations: Divvying of revenue, contract lengths, maximum annual raises, payroll limits and drug testing also have been on the table as a new agreement is sought before the current one expires June 30.

But, perhaps even as early as today, a proposal could be submitted for ratification from both constituencies that would drastically alter drafts in 2006 and beyond.

Age has long been a subject of great debate, boiling during the 2004 All-Star Game break.

"I have always promoted the fact that if a guy was physically and mentally capable of playing in the league, he should come," Players Association chief Billy Hunter said then.

It's been simmering ever since.

Stern went into the on-and-off talks pushing for an age minimum of 20, dropped to 19, and, for a time, "thought we had a deal on that issue." Later, the union altered its stance, pushing to permit the draft's first 14 picks to be as young as 18.

"We foresee a lot of complications in that solution," NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik said last Sunday.

Whatever the eventual agreement is, what's certain is that men like Miller and Stern feel strongly there should be some sort of minimum requirement — and that not everyone does.

"In principle," said four-year University of Florida product David Lee, a potential late first-round pick in the upcoming draft, "I think what they're talking about is a pretty good idea."

Lee understands the notion of "trying to weed out guys that try to come out of high school that aren't prepared to go to the league."

"But, at the same time," he said, "if you've got a guy like a LeBron James, I'm not sure there's any way you can force a guy that's that talented to go to college."

The LeBron Factor

Anyone attempting to argue that high school seniors aren't ready for the NBA with at least one year of seasoning in college must overcome the reality that is LeBron.

James made the leap two seasons ago, going No. 1 overall to Cleveland. Today, he stands as a poster-boy for those who argue there should be no above-18 minimum.

"Every year," said Webster, a potential lottery pick this year, "there might be that one guy that could make it."

James was hardly the first preps-to-pros jumper, following a long line on on-court success stories that includes All-Stars like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.

But he did it with such grace and immediate impact that even Stern grudgingly, perhaps, must acknowledge his place in the debate.

"The fundamental point I would argue . . . is really, LeBron was extraordinary out of high school; Tracy McGrady and others were not," the commissioner said. "They just grew to be All-Stars.

"There's no doubt LeBron was great . . . I just don't believe we should be in a position where, as a business matter, our teams are making judgments upon 18-year-olds playing against other 18-year-olds — and, by virtue of being in the gymnasiums, encouraging these kids to think they are going to be drafted by the NBA and have careers in the NBA. Because they are not."

Certainly not all.

Miller sees James are an anomaly.

"They (high school stars) come out often with the technical skills to play the game, but rarely the emotional skills to deal with what happens," the Jazz owner said. "There are exceptions. Kevin Garnett was one, and certainly LeBron James was one. But, by and large, I think more of them get hurt than get helped by coming out early."

Stern concurs, and very much wants the league's scouts and general managers to steer clear of teens who skip the dorms and move right to the Ritz.

"The perception of the NBA looking at players that are high school seniors is not a great perception," he said. "I'd like to get NBA personnel out of high school gyms.

"We can talk about Kobe and LeBron and Kevin Garnett and Jermaine O'Neal — or we can talk about (busts) Lenny Cooke and Leon Smith and Korleone Young and a host of others. The better business good, and the better community good, is to raise the minimum entry age from 18 to a higher number."

The case for college

In 2001, Florida's Lee played in the McDonald's High School All-American Game.

So did a foursome of big men that was among the first eight picks of that year's draft, a group whose careers so far have produced varying degrees of success, all well short of superstar-status even after four seasons: No. 1 overall Kwame Brown, No. 2 Tyson Chandler, No. 4 Eddy Curry and No. 8 DeSagana Diop.

A flash of temptation to go straight to the NBA may have passed through Lee's head.

"I had the athletic ability, I think, to do it," he said.

A wiser mind, however, prevailed.

"If I would have come out, I would have been out of the league by now," Lee said. "I mean, those years of maturity you pick up in college are just priceless.

"To know how hard to play all the time, I think, is one of the biggest parts. Mentally, living away from home (and) things like that are an adjustment. I think it's a much-easier adjustment in college than it is if you're traveling with an NBA team. Day-to-day demands are a big part of it. In college, you've got guys that are more team-oriented. You have guys that are just moving into their 20s . . . You come to the NBA out of high school, you're going up against guys that are 30 years old and might have a family."

Gonzaga senior Ronny Turiaf, another first-round hopeful, wouldn't trade his higher-education experience.

"I don't even know if there is a word to describe how grateful I was to stay in college four years — especially at a special place like Gonzaga," he said. "There is nowhere else in the country, in the whole world, like Gonzaga. It's like a family atmosphere. Everybody cares about each other . . . The coaching staff is awesome. The community is awesome. The fans are awesome."

Forget for a moment the idea of skipping college altogether; Turiaf would not even entertain the notion of exiting before playing a full four years, even if talent had suggested he could.

"For me to leave this place early wasn't worth it," he said. "The money is going to be there, no matter what. I'd rather live on the memories in my heart than all those dollar bills."

Or, as retired NBA All-Star and current TNT studio analyst Charles Barkley recently said, "Hey, the money is not going anywhere . . . And if you go to the right college, you can get paid there."

So many hurdles

The hurdles between high school and a successful NBA career are high and plentiful.

Some come on-court, and are realized as soon as pre-draft auditions begin. Then, Jazz basketball operations senior vice president Kevin O'Connor said, a teen hounded in 1-on-1 workouts by a more-mature college senior quickly comes to realize that "this is what's going to happen every night."

"(They've) always been able to rely on athleticism, and just being better than everybody else — or else they wouldn't be in . . . (the) draft," O'Connor said. "(They're) just flat-out better."

Not anymore, though.

Now, the plane is level.

Now, O'Connor said, they come to understand "the intensity, and that physical-ness of every play."

A mature physique is needed, but often not-yet owned.

"Your body," O'Connor said, "has to be able to take a beating a little bit."

"There are demands in our league that have to do with 171 days and 82 games," Stern added. "It's tough and stressful and some players react to it better than others."

Off-court matters can be even-more taxing.

Seattle prepster Webster has been so warned by the likes of his cousin, Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks, and his friend, Sonics star Rashard Lewis, who himself went right to the NBA from high school in 1998.

"They said the hardest transition would be living on your own, especially managing your money," Webster said.

For his soon-to-come millions, the 18-year-old already has financial advisors. For the transition out of his boyhood bedroom, there is family help — a relative who plans to live with him during his rookie NBA season.

"Uncle Clifford's coming with me," Webster said.

The temptation

The search for basketball's next LeBron, next Kobe, next Kevin Garnett has drastically altered the draft's composition.

When Garnett was taken No. 5 overall in 1995, he was the only high school first-rounder. When Bryant went No. 13 in '96, he and No. 17 Jermaine O'Neal were the only two.

In three of the last four years, a high school player has gone No. 1 overall: Brown to Washington in 2001, James two years later and Orlando's Dwight Howard last year.

Last year, a whopping eight of the first 19 picks came from high schools or prep academies in Georgia, Illinois, California, New York, Mississippi, Virginia, New Jersey and Connecticut.

A lottery pick these days, in other words, isn't always what it once was.

"You would expect that with that pick, 10 years ago or 15 years ago, that you'd get a three-year or a four-year proven product," O'Connor said. "You're not doing that today.

"So I guess 'patience' is the word. When you need help, you need to have patience with the help."

Complicating matters, though, is the fact that teams needing the most help, more often than not, are the ones taking the high school kids so high — and they can least-afford to wait.

"You're taking a team that needs help with the draft," O'Connor said, "and you're putting a player on there that a lot of times needs maturation, and needs to be able to improve, to be able to get to a point where they can help the team."

Bad mix.

"That being said," O'Connor said, "Dwight Howard certainly was an exception — and so was LeBron James."

And that only tempts some teams more.

"It's not good for our game," Stern said.

Added Miller: "We're . . . destroying our own farm system."

The D-League solution

The biggest mistake from the high school crew might be made by those who expect they'll be selected in the draft's first round, and are not.

Those who fall to the second round, like Lewis in '98, miss out on an immediately automatically guaranteed contract.

Some, like Lewis, overcome the setback. Others do not. And a few more never get the chance to find out if they could.

"You see guys," Florida's Lee said, "that have come out and not even gotten drafted, then are really stuck in a position where they have no education and no NBA to play in."

The National Basketball Development League is a possible solution to many of the pitfalls faced by teens so eager to turn pro.

Supported by the NBA, the NBDL is a minor league whose player contracts permit promotion to the NBA. There are, however, no direct franchise affiliations.

If that were to change, and if the NBDL were expanded to allow each NBA team to own or share an affiliate — the topic apparently has been broached during collective-bargaining negotiations — some suggest it could prove to be a sensible age-minimum compromise.

"Almost under any circumstance," deputy commissioner Granik said in February, "there are going to be players, whatever age they are permitted to be drafted in the NBA, (who) still may or may not be quite ready to play, and can probably do better by playing every day in the Development League . . . than by sitting on the bench and only playing a couple minutes in garbage time."

Still, Stern senses a mixed message.

"There's nothing wrong with a full-fledged minor league, and we've actually moved into the Southwest, adding four D-League teams. And my guess is we'll move that up to a 15-team league in a relatively short period of time," the NBA commissioner said last week. "But, it still keeps us telling kids . . . 'That's what you should be planning for, whether you're 17 or 16 or 6; the NBA is the place you go after high school.'

"I'm not going to get on a social platform . . . This is not telling young men that they should 'go to college.' No one has to tell Bill Gates that he has to 'go to college.' No one should tell a basketball player that he should 'go to college.' . . . (But) what we want (is) to tell kids they better plan to do something after high school that is not the immediate road to the NBA."

The foreign factor

It's not just high school players who would be impacted by an age minimum of 19.

The arrival of certain foreign players — some of whom turned pro when they were as young as 15, as Jazz All-Star Andrei Kirilenko did in Russia — could also be delayed.

Stern doesn't mind.

"From the basketball infrastructure," he said, "I've had people say to me that there are a number of international players that came into the NBA too soon, went back home and actually never developed as a result of making themselves available and flunking out of the NBA — that if they had a year or two more to develop, that would be extraordinary for them, their leagues and the NBA."

Hello, Darko Milicic.

Milicic, among others, currently resides on the LeBron poster's flip side.

Drafted No. 2 overall behind James in 2003, Detroit's still 19-year-old from Montenegro (he turns 20 tomorrow) has one NBA title ring and could soon

win another.

But his presence in a Pistons game usually signals either a blowout win or a really bad loss. He is Detroit's victory cigar, and its very own sanitation engineer.

"From agents representing international players, I've read that (an age rule) is a 'terrible thing' for international players," Stern said. "For the NBA, I think we should treat everyone the same. You have an age limit and it applies to everybody, wherever they're born."

The DeShawn Experience

The Jazz have drafted just one player out of high school.

DeShawn Stevenson arrived from Fresno, Calif., with the No. 23 pick in 2000.

He exited on Feb. 19, 2004, having been traded to Orlando, 222 regular-season games in a Jazz uniform to his credit, but no extraordinary on-court legacy beyond the occasional eye-popping dunk.

To this day, O'Connor heartily defends the pick.

"He's playing in the league," the Jazz basketball boss said. "He's on another team.

"We were a veteran team (at the time). We took a risk at 23. And he got better. Now, whether he can continue to get better — that's up to him."

Off the court, there were a few blotches on Stevenson's record: A fistfight the night he was drafted, an alleged sex-and-alcohol incident with a girl in Fresno, one notable blowup with coach Jerry Sloan during a playoff-series practice session.

Again, O'Connor defends the selection.

"In almost (four) years, he was late one time for practice," he said. "I thought he worked fairly hard in practice."

O'Connor acknowledges the aforementioned incidents, but readily adds, "I think, overall, if you say to me, 'How did he conduct himself?' — I thought he conducted himself professionally."

Sure, O'Connor concedes, Stevenson — who originally committed to the University of Kansas, before academic issues arose — could have grown with at least a year in college.

"If he had gone with (then-Jayhawks coach) Roy Williams to Kansas, I think it would have benefited him a great deal. But, I think it would have benefited most people to do that."

So just like any one pick in particular will not dictate decision-making on another — "Did Quincy Lewis prevent us from taking a four-year kid?" O'Connor asked with reference to a now out-of-the-league 1999 first-rounder — the DeShawn experience will not dissuade the Jazz from drafting a high school product again.

Nor would the fact franchise-owner Miller so adamantly wants an age minimum.

"I know it sounds hypocritical," he said.

But, Miller added, "It would be foolish to stand on idealism, or my idealism, and pass on a really good 18- or 19-year-old — as long as that's the rule. I'd like to see the rule changed, but part of my responsibility is to make this team the most-competitive team I know how to make it."

Yet that also is not to say the Jazz are destined to use their top pick in the upcoming draft — No. 6 overall — on a high school star like Green or Webster.

If they did, it would only be because they decided one or the other was an exceptionally skilled prospect.

"The risk, and the reward," O'Connor said, "are both much higher at our number."

The message

Stern does not care that young high school stars can go straight to the highest level in baseball, hockey, soccer, golf, tennis or tiddlywinks.

His role model is football, since the NFL essentially requires a three-year post-high school waiting period.

Splitting the class — like Major League Baseball, which allows players to be drafted out of high school, but not again until after their junior year in college if they sign with a four-year school — makes no sense to him.

"Once you have kids who are eligible to be drafted, whether they are or not . . . our scouts scout them and look at them and make judgments," Stern said. "Indeed, the very fact our scouts are there causes more kids to think they are going to be drafted."

Some are. Many are not.

But the union is not about to concede a three-year wait. So Stern is willing to give age 19. At least it's better than 18, he seems to figure.

"Most of all," he said, "it gets us out of the business of scouting 16-year-olds.

"(That's) not a good place for this league to be. It's not good for our reputation, and it's really not a very good message for a sports league to send out."

Miller hears the commissioner, loud and clear.

"Drafting these young kids," the Jazz owner said, "is ridiculous."


E-mail: tbuckley@desnews.com