Greg Oden won't graduate from high school until next year, but many believe the 6-foot-11 center from Indianapolis could be the No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft if he were eligible.
Oden, 17, says he wants to play college basketball, and now it looks as if he will.
With the NBA's decision as part of its new collective-bargaining agreement that players cannot be drafted until a year after their high school class graduates, Oden won't be eligible in 2006, either -- meaning the decision hardly anyone believed Oden would really make has been made for him.
"I guess we'll never know what would have happened," said Michael Conley, the former Olympic triple jump champion who coaches Oden's Indianapolis-based summer league team, which includes Conley's son, Michael Conley Jr., also Oden's teammate at Lawrence North High.
"Greg has always said he wants to go to college," the elder Conley said. "But if all of a sudden his senior year, he explodes and you're talking about $90 million, $100 million, that's something he has to consider. An NBA age restriction takes away that option."
The NBA decision means some high school players who would have jumped straight to the NBA might now play a year in college, but it is hardly being met with rejoicing in college circles.
"I'm disappointed. This is just a stopgap measure," Arizona Coach Lute Olson said in a statement. "It gives the NBA the ability to say that they did something about the problem, but it doesn't realistically address the problem or the effect it has on college basketball."
NCAA executives and coaches admire the baseball model, where players may be drafted out of high school but once they enter college must wait three years to be eligible for the draft again.
Earlier talk of an NBA minimum age of 20 was met with some enthusiasm, because coaches envisioned players staying at least two years.
But many coaches feel the change the NBA adopted makes little difference.
"I think it's a compromise that accomplishes very little in terms of limiting the numbers of early entrants," Olson said.
Jim Haney, executive director of the National Assn. of Basketball Coaches, said the move "strikes me as no real change."
"For kids aspiring to go directly to the NBA, maybe they'll go to prep school for a year," Haney said. "How many are going to play in the NBA, and how many are going to go play in the developmental league a couple of years and have nothing afterwards?"
Coaches who once faced decisions about whether to spend time and money recruiting a player they believed would probably go straight to the NBA now must decide whether it is worth it to recruit a player for one year.
It was for Syracuse, which lost Carmelo Anthony after one season but won the 2003 NCAA title.
But at programs such as Duke, North Carolina and Arizona, hit repeatedly by early departures in recent years, coaches worry about recruiting players year after year for careers that are both brief and unpredictable.
"Very seldom does one year of college benefit either the player or the program," Olson said. "Carmelo Anthony might be the only example of that. But it does create a problem by having to continually recruit behind players and deal with speculation about who might be leaving and who might be staying."
There's also another new concern -- the potential impact of early departures on a program's Academic Progress Rate, or APR, the new NCAA point system that eventually could result in loss of scholarships and even banishment from postseason play for teams whose athletes do not perform well academically, particularly if they leave school when they are not in good academic standing.
NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said the organization does not believe early entries will significantly affect APR, but some coaches differed.
"It will affect it," said UCLA Coach Ben Howland, who also called the NBA decision a tough one for players. "I think if a kid is old enough to represent his country and serve in the armed forces, he should have a right if someone wants to choose him, that's my opinion."
Howland said he won't shy away from recruiting a player because he might be on campus only one year, citing cases such as Dwight Howard, the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft last year and a player Howland said was a good student.
"If Dwight Howard had played for us this year at UCLA, we would have been vastly improved," he said.
Oden, the Indianapolis high school star, is an unusual case.
Despite his earnestness about wanting to attend college, he was not being recruited as heavily as one would expect an athletic and mobile near 7-footer to be.
"No one believed him," the elder Conley said.
Expect the recruiting to get more heated now.
Oden was playing in an all-star game Tuesday, but his stance has been consistent.
"I have a lot to work on. I'm not as good as people say. I need to go to college," Oden said earlier this month in San Diego, where he was participating in the USA Basketball Youth Development Festival.
Ohio State, Wake Forest, Indiana and Michigan State were his finalists at the time, and he and Conley have been visiting campuses together and hope to play together.
"I need to go to college, to get an education, No. 1, and just to experience college," said Oden, who insisted there was "no chance" he would have jumped to the NBA if the age limit weren't changed.
"I'm not good enough," he said. "They've drafted off potential and guys don't live up to their potential."
The new minimum age will save him a decision, but he said he'd like to see others get to make one.
"Some players who are good enough to go," Oden said. "Why deny them their chance?"