The 1990s and early 2000s is arguably the ultimate era of “What ifs?” in NBA history, with the ’70s as the only other decade really in the discussion. Yet while the ’70s were marred by drug use and a talent pool thinned by expansion and the rise of the ABA, the ’90s and aughts simply fell victim to too many teams being willing to give too many unproven players big money too early in their lives.
Tracy McGrady leaped straight to the NBA from Mount Zion Christian Academy in 1997, fell to the Raptors at No. 9 in the draft and almost immediately flashed his promising talent, albeit in limited playing time for coaches Darrell Walker and Butch Carter. By his third year, it was apparent McGrady would be a star, and the Magic scooped him up as part of a sign-and-trade with Toronto. He blossomed into one of the best players in the league for Orlando and Houston, and the fact that he now gets mocked for his lack of postseason success says just how much more successful he was than Jonathan Bender or Darius Miles.
Sixteen years later, McGrady is a member of the San Antonio Spurs, taking part (as it were) in his first NBA Finals. This marks McGrady’s first trip beyond the first round of the playoffs in his career, and his limited role has not made the moment bittersweet — or made him rethink his career path.
Unsurprisingly, McGrady is not a fan of the NBA’s current rule requiring all players to wait one year after their class’ high school graduation to enter the NBA. Surprisingly, McGrady thinks it should be stricter.
“I actually think they should implement having these guys go to school for two years,” McGrady told USA Today. “What is it, one year now? At least go to school for two years, because the league is so young. I think we need to build our league up. I mean, I hate to say it, but the talent in this league is pretty down.”
McGrady is entitled to his opinion, but his rationale is dead wrong. The talent in the NBA right now has generally improved since McGrady’s prime, and as much as a dedicated David Stern critic may hate to admit it, the longer rookie deals and limits on individual contracts have impacted the quality of all-around talent per team for the better. TV ratings were also down back then, a reality McGrady may have been insulated from with the Rockets, who were booming in global popularity due to Yao Ming.
But McGrady had a personal take as well, and on that he was not wrong. To paraphrase one of Mike Tyson‘s best lines, handing an 18-year-old kid millions of dollars and sending him off to fend for himself is a potential travesty in the making.
“It was pretty difficult becoming a man so early and competing against grown men,” McGrady said. “You’re the best player on the floor in high school and then you come face the best players in the world.
“Also, the transition to living on your own, having to deal with the traveling, dealing with the different climaxes, getting into cities at 2 or 3 in the morning, and then waking up the next morning for shootarounds and practices. I mean, it’s a culture shock.”
With all due respect to McGrady — who admitted that the $12 million shoe deal he got from Adidas helped entice him to go pro, and demonstrated an admirable degree of maturity as a young player — the greatest disappointment of his era was not that too many players jumped to the NBA straight out of high school, but that so many potentially historic teams and players never came to fruition. McGrady and his cousin Vince Carter could have formed an all-time one-two punch in Toronto instead of seeking big money and fame elsewhere. Two of McGrady’s later teammates, Grant Hill and Yao, could have been two of the game’s greats if not for injuries. The list of “shoulda-beens” from McGrady’s peak era go on and on.
The league doesn’t need to make the age limit any stricter. If the NBA wants to “fix” past wrongs, it just needs to find a way to go back in time, prevent McGrady and Carter from leaving the Raptors, fortify Hill’s ankles and Yao’s feet and make a few other tweaks while it’s at it. Simple.