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Now starring in the NBA draft: Cap Fear

More and more, as a rookie salary cap draws closer and closer, they become younger and younger. The NBA, once the next step for collegians whose eligibility had expired, is becoming a quick step for kids barely out of high school.

Small forward Jerry Stackhouse and center Rasheed Wallace, both of North Carolina, and Maryland center Joe Smith, are projected lottery picks in Wednesday's NBA draft. That's three sophomores likely to be among the first 13 picks (11 non-playoff teams plus expansion franchises Toronto and Vancouver).

By comparison, last year's lottery picks included one sophomore: Jason Kidd. The year before, one: Chris Webber. The year before that, none. From two in three years to three in one.

And there are more underclassmen coming out early this year, hoping to cash in on the windfall contracts that often go to rookie draftees.

In all, 17 players have filed as early entrants for the draft. Credit (or blame) the potential rookie cap. It won't necessarily reduce salaries for first-year players. More likely it will reduce contract lengths.

The days of deals like Glenn Robinson's 10-year, fully guaranteed $68.1-million pact with the Bucks and Kidd's nine-year, almost completely guaranteed $54-million contract with the Mavericks may be drawing to a close. Maybe by next year, maybe even before these rookies pick up a pen.

"Basketball is entertainment'

"There is nothing wrong with a youngster coming out early _ if he can handle all that goes with it," says Isiah Thomas, vice president of the expansion Toronto Raptors (and a 1981 early NBA entry out of Indiana). "It's not just about basketball skills. He's going to be playing basketball two, three hours a night. It's whether he's going to be able to handle everything that happens off the court.

"Basketball is entertainment," Thomas says. "Is he mature enough to handle the entertainment world? Some people mature faster than others. There are some very mature 20-year-olds and some very immature 20-year-olds. Then again, there are some immature 30-year-olds."

North Carolina coach Dean Smith endorsed the decisions by Stackhouse and Wallace to leave school early. "We've generally had a feeling here that if you and your family can be financially secure for life, then perhaps you should consider postponing your education," Smith said.

And South Florida coach Bobby Paschal notes: "These underclassmen have some concerns about a cap. If they wait a year, what kind of effect will it have? What if they come back and get injured? What then? The great players, I think they really have no choice but to go ahead (and turn pro). It's really hard for someone to turn down that kind of money, that kind of security. I can't in any way blame a player for moving on."

The Year of the Underclass

Cap or no cap, this could be another Year of the Underclass. Last year, six of the first seven picks were underclassmen, compared with the first four picks the year before that, and two of the first four picks the year before that.

Forwards Corliss Williamson (Arkansas), Gary Trent (Ohio), David Vaughn (Memphis), and Scotty Thurman (Arkansas) and center Mario Bennett (Arizona State) could push a few of this year's seniors further down _ or out of _ the lottery.

"Stackhouse, Wallace, Smith," Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams said, ticking off the names, "they're going to be a big influence on the top of the draft. The first six or seven could be underclassmen again. The rookie cap has scared these kids. They think this might be it."

A few sleepers

Likely first-round seniors such as forwards Lou Roe (UMass), Ed O'Bannon (UCLA) and Sherell Ford (Illinois-Chicago), centers Bryant Reeves (Oklahoma State) and Cherokee Parks (Duke) and guards Shawn Respert (Michigan State), Randolph Childress (Wake Forest), Bob Sura (Florida State) and Damon Stoudamire (Arizona) could be victimized by players understaying their welcome in college _ not to mention one who may never sit in a college classroom.

High schooler Kevin Garnett of Chicago Farragut Academy, rated by at least one recruiting service as the best prep center since Bill Walton, could be a surprise draftee. The NBA is not averse to selecting kids barely old enough to drive (a car, not the hoop) _ Darryl Dawkins and Moses Malone, to name two.

"This is a small group of seniors of note," Orlando's Williams said, "so the Smiths and Wallaces and Stackhouses and Thurmans are going to have a huge impact on the first dozen or so picks."

"It's a guessing game'

So what kind of impact will this year's draft have?

Who knows?

"Look at the teams in the playoffs. Not too many of them played rookies," said Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting.

Good point. Consider the teams with the top eight picks a year ago were among the 11 that failed to make the playoffs this year. Robinson, Kidd, Grant Hill and so on went home after the requisite 82 games.

"This is a draft of pretty good college players," Blake said, "but this is not a draft of sure-shot pro players. It's a guessing game. College ain't pro ball." And Toronto's Thomas added: "There isn't a Shaq in this draft."

"There are no sure things," Paschal said. "Every so often you read about someone's No.

1 pick that nobody's ever heard of again since that first year. Then you see guys like that point guard for San Antonio, Avery Johnson," a refugee from the USBL who went undrafted out of Southern University and has played for and been waived or traded by the Sonics, Nuggets, Rockets, Warriors and Spurs.

"It has to do with more than talent," Paschal said. "It has to do with character and persistence and hard work and being in the right place at the right time."

Not to mention luck, added Williams, reflecting on the Magic's successive No. 1 lottery picks that landed Shaquille O'Neal and (by way of a trade) Anfernee Hardaway.

"But, hey, the draft is a crapshoot," Williams added. "Always has been. You do your best research _ you study, question, analyze, investigate _ and then you take your chances. This ain't an exact science."

Eligible underclassmen

Player School Pos.

Cory Alexander Virginia PG

Mario Bennett Arizona State PF

Chris Carr Southern Illinois F

Michael Evans Okaloosa-Walton CC PG

Kevin Garnett Farragut Academy (HS) F

Rashard Griffith Wisconsin C

Zydrunas Ilgauskas Lithuania C

Antonio McDyess Alabama PF

Joe Smith Maryland PF

Jerry Stackhouse North Carolina F/G

Scotty Thurman Arkansas F/G

Gary Trent Ohio PF

David Vaughn Memphis PF

John Wallace Syracuse PF

Rasheed Wallace North Carolina C

Corliss Williamson Arkansas PF

Darroll Wright Missouri Western G