CHICAGO From his days as a gymnast, Eddy Curry can stand flatfooted and do a backflip, catapulting his 6-foot-11, 290-pound frame through the air and landing on his feet again.
His flexibility is one of his biggest assets, even if doing flips won't help him much when he bangs against 7-1, 330-pound Shaquille O'Neal. That day could come within months of Curry's high school graduation.
At 18, Curry leads five other Class of 2001 high schoolers in the leap from homerooms and proms into the June 27 NBA draft.
A total of 75 players, including the six high school stars and 12 others who were college freshmen last year, applied for entry into the draft. The trend of players skipping college or leaving early raises questions about the future of college and pro basketball and of the youths themselves.
Curry, who sports a "Beast Among Men" tattoo on his left arm, said his decision wasn't easy, but he got a lot of advice at his Calumet City home in a predominantly working-class suburb of Chicago.
"That's a decision you can't make by yourself," Curry said in the Thorwood High gym where he became a star. "My family is a group of people who are close to me because they love me, not because of money or anything."
Before completing his prep career, Curry committed to playing close to home at DePaul. But after competing in two prep all-star games in April, Curry decided to go pro, citing scouts' projections that he would be a high first-round pick.
"I felt early on that he might be a player we could get a year or two out of," said DePaul coach Pat Kennedy, who's had four players over the past two years declare early for the NBA draft. "He's one of those exceptional types, like a Patrick Ewing, that could take you to a Final Four."
Curry must deal with a transition that is difficult enough because of the demands of NBA competition and the grueling 82-game regular-season schedule. He also must deal with hangers-on and others competing for his attention and potential earnings.
"Every time you meet someone, you have to screen them a little to see if they are nice because of your money or because they really like you," he said.
Curry, dubbed "Baby Shaq," will become a rich teenager no matter where he takes his size 17 sneakers.
First-round draft picks sign guaranteed three-year contracts. The club has an option for a fourth year, then they become restricted free agents, meaning the team has a right to match any offer. Kenyon Martin, last year's top pick, signed a three-year, $11.3 million deal with New Jersey.
Also chasing their NBA dreams are high school players Kwame Brown of Brunswick, Ga.; Tyson Chandler and Tony Key, both of Compton, Calif.; Ousmane Cisse of Montgomery, Ala.; and De Sagana Diop of Oak Hill Academy, Va.
They hope to follow Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and others who made a successful transition in the past six years.
But there also have been players like Leon Smith, another Chicago-area star whose NBA career was over before it began because of emotional and personal problems. Two years after being drafted in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs and traded to the Dallas Mavericks, he's out of the league.
NBA commissioner David Stern said the influx of players at such a young age poses problems, not just on the basketball court.
"I believe that kids are now bouncing the ball in schoolyards saying, 'Just get to be 17 and that's where I'm going,"' Stern said. "The result of that is bad policy; bad for the kid's development, bad for the college game, bad for the business of the NBA."
One proposal is for an age limit, perhaps 20, but the players' union would have to support it. The NBA already is planning a developmental league.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, a player is draft-eligible for the NBA as soon as his high school class has graduated.
The players' union and NBA have no talks scheduled on an age limit, and the collective bargaining agreement might have to be reopened to do so.
Union director Billy Hunter said the NBA can't have it both ways decrying the migration of prep players but making sure it's always there to scout them.
All but two of the 29 NBA teams, for example, sent a representative to see Curry and Chandler play against each other in the finale of an eight-game prep basketball festival in St. Louis last year.
"The message is being sent: If they got the skill, there is no need to go to college or do something else as a prerequisite to come into the league," Hunter said.
"The union's position is it's a right of choice. We see no reason why a kid should be barred if he has the skill to play in the league. And if the owners and administrators of the teams don't feel they have the maturity and growth, they shouldn't select them or encourage them to come."
Because of the competitiveness in the NBA, scouts and general managers often have to check out high school talent or risk missing the next Bryant, Garnett or Tracy McGrady. And it's possible that such players became NBA stars quicker by bypassing college and facing the world's best at such an early age.
Others such as the Pacers' Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender and last year's third choice overall, Darius Miles of the Clippers, are works in progress. And 1996 high school grad Jermaine O'Neal finally emerged this season with Indiana after a trade from Portland.
Two prep-to-pro pioneers of the 1970s were Moses Malone and Darryl Dawkins. Malone survived the ABA and became one of the NBA's greatest scorers and rebounders; Dawkins invented his own planet "Lovetron," and fondly named his collection of ferocious, sometimes backboard-shattering dunks.
But there also was Bill Willoughby, who entered the NBA from high school at the same time as Dawkins but played for six teams over eight seasons.
Just last month, Willoughby got his college degree at 44. Yet he said he made the right decision when he turned pro and has no problems with today's top prep players doing the same.
"You got a chance to go play against your idols like Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving and George Gervin, you've got to do it," Willoughby said. "You can go to school later."
The recent rash of early entrees began in 1995 when Garnett left Farragut Academy in Chicago for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
At 21, after establishing himself as one of the league's top players, he signed what was then the richest contract in sports history, a six-year, $126 million deal.
"It has absolutely nothing to do with if kids are ready to play or not ready to play," Pacers coach Isiah Thomas said. "It has everything to do with being drafted and being guaranteed five years of income. There is not a person in the world who would turn that down."
Thomas has a unique perspective on leaving early. He turned pro after two years at Indiana and became an All-Star who led the Detroit Pistons to two NBA championships. He was an executive with Toronto when the Raptors drafted McGrady, and he now coaches a team with Harrington, Bender and O'Neal.
"Maturity doesn't have an age limit on it," Thomas said. "There are very mature 19-year-olds and very immature 30-year-olds. It all depends on the person and if he is able to handle it or adapt."
Curry admits he is curious about what lies ahead. And about what he'll be missing.
"It's tough to go from being a superstar to being just another player in the NBA," he said. "I'm going to the NBA out of high school, but I'm wondering what it would be like to play in college."