In 2005, Dior Johnson’s favorite evening pastime was kicking back on the living room floor firmly gripping a bottle full of milk and watching “SpongeBob SquarePants” until he dozed off.
At the age of just 17 months, he, quite naturally, had no interest in watching the NBA Draft, so he can’t tell you what it felt like to see Amir Johnson, no relation, get picked at No. 56 by the Detroit Pistons.
Amir was the last high school player drafted before the league did away with allowing seniors to enter the draft and implemented the rule that states a player must be 19 or one year removed from high school in order to declare for the draft.
Now 15, Dior and other elite players in the 2022 class are preparing for the real possibility that they’ll have the option to walk off the stage at high school graduation and onto the NBA Draft stage to shake hands with NBA commissioner Adam Silver.
Last week, USA TODAY Sports reported the NBA submitted a proposal to the National Basketball Players Assn. to lower the minimum draft-eligible age to 18 by 2022.
Last April the independent Commission on College Basketball, led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, presented recommendations to the NCAA to help clean up the sport, which included doing away with the one-and-done rule.
“I think that’s a great thing that we’ll be able to go straight to the NBA,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-3 point guard at Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.). “I’ve always felt like we should’ve had that option, I’m just glad ours is the class that is looking like things will change for. We just have to be ready.”
To that end, Kobe Bryant said during an interview with USA TODAY that high school players eyeing a potential jump in 2022 must “keep the flames of curiosity burning” regarding improvement.
In 1996, Bryant went straight from Lower Merion High School (Philadelphia) to being drafted No. 13 overall by the Charlotte Hornets, who quickly dealt him to the Los Angeles Lakers for Vlade Divac.
“You’ve gotta understand whether you come out of high school or you come out your first, second, third, fourth year of college, you still have to get better, right?” said Bryant, who won five NBA titles with the Lakers before retiring in 2016. “You have to understand and remember what’s most important, which is the game itself.”
Still, Johnson said he envisions more obstacles off the court.
“I’m confident in my work ethic and my ability,” Johnson said. “I know I’m gonna put in the work; for me it’s more about being ready to have money and knowing how to move as a teenage millionaire. I’d just be more worried about keeping the right people around me because so many people are gonna want to take advantage of the young guy.”
In all, 45 high school players have been taken in the NBA Draft; Moses Malone was the first, in 1974.
Like most elite players ranked near the top of their class, Durham (N.C.) Academy shooting guard Marquise Rice has the size (6-foot-5), versatility and athleticism (44-inch vertical leap) that will undoubtedly make NBA scouts pay attention when the time comes. He said the realization that, with a logical progression, he’ll have the opportunity to achieve his ultimate dream earlier is exciting.
“That’s what we’re all working for,” said Rice, a freshman. “I watched the NBA All-Star stuff last week, and I was picturing myself out there being a part of it all. It just makes me want to work harder knowing what’s at stake.”
Oak Hill Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) coach Steve Smith has had two players – DeSagana Diop (2001) and Josh Smith (2004) – drafted out of high school into the first round and is happy to see that the rule likely will revert.
“You see kids that are freshmen in college are some of the best players in the country every year,” Smith said. “I mean you see tennis players turning pro at 13 and 14. It’s hard to tell a kid not to go make money and take care of his family.”
Johnson said he’d “be the first one” to enter the draft out of high school mainly because of the risk of injury in college.
That fear was magnified when Duke’s Zion Williamson fell awkwardly after ripping through his shoe as he planted while attempting to make a move toward the basket during a game against North Carolina on Feb. 20.
Williamson, the probable No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, was diagnosed with a mild sprain, but has yet to return to Duke’s lineup and is listed as day-to-day.
In 2014, an Indiana University study found that 67 percent of Division I college athletes will suffer a serious injury during their college career.
“You could get out there and injure yourself to the point that it changes your game permanently,” Johnson said. “I’m glad God spared Zion, but that was a lesson learned for me.”
E.J. Bates’ son Emoni, a wing at Ypsilanti Lincoln High School (Mich.), is arguably the top player in the 2022 class, but E.J. maintains that, even if the NBA will be an option, they’re not completely closed off to college.
He’s also not convinced there will be a mass exodus of players skipping college to try their luck with the draft unless the Commission on College Basketball’s recommendation to permit players to return to school in the event they go undrafted by the NBA is implemented.
“If that happens, more players will jump in because of the opportunity,” E.J. said. “It’s great that they may get the option back and the NBA is the goal, but there’s so much time between now and then. We’re not focused on that. We’re focused on what we can control and that is working hard and getting better.”
USA TODAY staff writer Logan Newman contributed to this report.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY