In the last four years, the top of the NBA Draft has undergone a substantial transformation. Before 2008, only two point guards -- Magic Johnson and Allen Iverson -- had been taken first overall. Now, with Kyrie Irving's selection last week, three of the last four No. 1 overall picks (Irving, Derrick Rose, John Wall) have been point guards under 6'4.
With the abolition of the perimeter hand-check in the middle of the decade and the declining number of true low-post centers, the NBA has become an increasingly perimeter-oriented game. But the pre-eminence of the point-guard position is also a result of another long-term trend: basketball's ability to beat out the other major American sports for the top amateur athletes.
Traditionally, a high school's best athlete was the football team's quarterback, the basketball team's PG and the baseball team's center fielder. But with the days of Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders long over, teenage athletes have to specialize at an early as age. And as point guards have become increasingly important in the NBA, center fielders have been devalued in modern baseball.
Of the 17 center fielders in baseball's Hall of Fame, only one -- Kirby Puckett -- played in the last 35 years. Only two have won an MVP since 1989. The golden era of the position -- with Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider all simultaneously playing in 1950s New York City -- is long over.
Manning one of the toughest defensive positions in the game, center fielders are typically the best athletes on a baseball team. It takes an extremely special combination of size, speed and strength to adequately play the position while still putting up the type of offensive numbers that merit Hall of Fame consideration.
It's the same combination of athletic ability and hand-eye coordination required of dual-threat QBs and ball-dominant PGs. And while it's possible Washington Wizards PG John Wall is a world-class athlete with the arm strength of a small girl, the video of him throwing out a first pitch at the Nationals game is a good indication that he's never thrown a baseball before in his life.
Carl Crawford, the Gold Glove left fielder, received a seven-year, $142 million contract from the Boston Red Sox in the off-season in large part due to his elite athleticism. Crawford, who passed up a basketball scholarship at UCLA and a football scholarship at Nebraska, is exactly the type of athlete baseball typically loses at the amateur level.
This year, Amir Garrett, a Top 100 basketball recruit who signed with St. John's, was heavily scouted by MLB teams and was drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 22nd round despite not playing baseball in over a year. Nick Aiello, the pitching coach at the University of Southern Nevada said, "there might be 100 players in the NCAA and NBA that can match [Garrett's] size and athleticism, whereas there might be five in the whole country in baseball."
Ken Griffey Jr., the only modern CF likely to make the Hall, is the exception that proves the rule - the son of a baseball player who grew up his entire life around the sport.
With baseball's decline in the inner city, basketball's biggest competition is football. And while the NBA is only a blip in the NFL's radar, the more we know about the long-term neurological dangers of the sport, the more basketball looks like a better alternative for the best young athletes.
As Troy Aikman, the Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame QB who was forced to retire because of head injuries, told HBO sports: "I think that we're at a real crossroads, as it relates to the grassroots of our sport, because if I had a 10-year-old boy, I don't know that I'd be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we are learning from head injury."
Basketball players have to deal with arthritic knees and back pain after they retire; football players have to deal with long-term neurological and physical disabilities that can drive players renowned for their toughness to suicide. When doctors autopsied Andre Waters, a 44-year old former football player, they found he had the brain tissue of an 85-year old man.
That's why the lockout, which could threaten the entire 2011-2012 NBA season and seriously damage the sport's popularity, is such a big deal. The competition for the best athletes is a zero-sum game, where the end-results of thousands of decisions made in middle school can have dramatic effects on the quality of the pro game years later.
After all, with black players accounting for only 8.5 percent of the MLB, the odds are against a modern-day Willie Mays even playing the sport.