Way back in 1997, teenager Tracy McGrady was the best high school basketball player in America. A relatively late bloomer, McGrady stood out at the Adidas ABCD Camp the summer before his final year at Mt. Zion Christian Academy, won several Player of the Year awards, and upped his draft stock enough to become a viable preps-to-pros entrant into the NBA draft. With several teams uncertain about gambling on a largely unproven talent, McGrady slid to ninth to the Toronto Raptors. Along with Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant, T-Mac helped prove that a lack of preparation in NCAA basketball did not need to be a barrier to NBA stardom.
Sixteen years later, McGrady is a 34-year-old benchwarmer for the San Antonio Spurs. His best seasons are well behind him, but his career has been an qualified success: seven All-Star selections and All-NBA selections (two on the First Team), two scoring titles, and $162 million in salary. Yet high school basketball stars can no longer follow in his footsteps, because the NBA's age limit dictates they must spend at least one season elsewhere between their high school graduation and rookie season.
Despite his life experiences, McGrady does not think this is an injustice. In fact, he believes players should have to spend at least two seasons in college. From Alex Kennedy for USA Today:
"I actually think they should implement having these guys go to school for two years," McGrady said. "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." [...]
"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 was a culture shock."
McGrady believes that attending college "probably would have" better prepared him for the NBA. However, he doesn't regret his route to the league.
When asked why he decided to bypass college and go straight to the pros, McGrady said bluntly, "Well, let's see, adidas gave me a $12 million contract. I mean, (expletive), enough said."
I am not particularly interested in hashing out the particulars of McGrady's case, because it's mostly in line with the arguments for the age limit that have been presented many times over the past decade. (I'm on the opposite side, for the record, because I think players should have the opportunity to take those $12 million shoe contracts.)
Instead, I'd like to consider how McGrady's age and current situation might affect his opinion. While it's wise to take him at his word on the difficulties of adjusting to the league as a teenager, the young T-Mac didn't exactly struggle in his first two seasons. While he played limited minutes, he announced himself as an extremely promising, versatile talent within a few months, showing a knack for scoring, defending (he was a terrific wing shot-blocker), and rebounding.
Although he matured as a scorer in his third season and parlayed that improvement into a max-level contract with Orlando, there were relatively few points in his first seasons where it looked as if he didn't belong. He was raw, certainly, and in need of a great deal of work, but also showed a huge capacity for rapid improvement. In other words, he was an exciting young player, just like many rookies of various ages and backgrounds. McGrady can claim that he skipped out on college for the shoe contract, but he wouldn't have succeeded if he hadn't believed he was able to play with and against grown men.
Like a great deal of excellent players near or beyond the end of their careers, McGrady appears to be the victim of biased nostalgia for his own good-old days. By most historical perspectives, McGrady's prime years were actually a relatively down period for the league. The talent level of today is just as good as it was then, at minimum. The league may appear young to T-Mac in part because he's now one of the oldest players in it.
For that matter, he's also someone who has occasionally struggled to find a job in the past few seasons. largely because teams feel more comfortable looking for cheaper, younger players with more (read: any) potential to grow. He has his own biases, the same way that a player who decides to enter the draft after only one season on campus believes he's prepared for the challenge of the NBA. It's a matter of perspective, not airtight logic.