CHICAGO -- The Chicago Bulls gambled three summers ago, entrusting the future of the franchise to a couple of teenagers just out of high school.
Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry were raw and inexperienced, but they were also 7 feet tall and incredibly talented. Give them time to develop, and the two could be the best big men in the East -- and the cornerstone of a new Bulls dynasty.
Three years later, Chandler and Curry remain certain they'll be a force in the NBA one day. But they're no closer to dominating the game than they were that June night they were drafted, and the Bulls are paying the price with another abysmal year.
Chandler has shown he can live up to his hype, averaging a double-double early in the season, but he's played in only 10 games because of a back injury. Curry gets pushed around too easily for a guy dubbed "Baby Shaq," and he's regressed from last season, when he led the NBA with a .585 field goal percentage.
He's averaging fewer than 6 rebounds to go with his 12.5 points, and coach Scott Skiles has criticized his conditioning. He's also a frequent target of boos in Chicago.
"I know if I was out there, I could make things easier for him," said Chandler, who was drafted second overall in 2001, two spots ahead of Curry. "I'm always going to feel like we can be the best two big men in the East."
But when? While Kevin Garnett made the transition from preps to the pros with relative ease and LeBron James makes the leap seem like child's play this year, they are the exceptions. Most players who've gone from high school to the NBA have struggled early on. Some eventually become standouts, developing slowly, like Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal and Seattle's Rashard Lewis. Others become cautionary tales, flaming out like Darius Miles or Leon Smith.
Miles, the No. 3 pick in 2000, is on his third team in four seasons. Smith, a first-rounder in 1999, isn't even in the league.
"The expectations, they're hard, but that's the price you pay when you want to jump straight from high school," said Toronto Raptors forward Donyell Marshall, who played with Chandler and Curry before the Bulls traded him in November.
"I don't think anybody wants those high expectations on them, but that's what they come in the league for. They wanted to make themselves the franchise and stuff like that. That's what comes with the territory."
Players are eligible for the NBA as soon as their high school class graduates. NBA commissioner David Stern would like the minimum age raised to 20, but that's unlikely to happen.
So teenagers will continue to make the jump. Teams will keep taking chances, just in case they really are the next James, Garnett, or Kobe Bryant.
And the growing pains will continue.
"There's no question not going to college hurts," said Bulls general manager John Paxson, who didn't draft Chandler or Curry. "It's really the environment. I've been able to see several college practices this year and you say to yourself, `There's something demanded of them. There's discipline.'
"There's just a structure that, as professionals, you can't totally give them."
Like the other phenoms who've gone straight to the NBA, Chandler and Curry dominated in high school. Chandler was USA Today's player of the year in California his senior year, when he averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds, and 8 blocked shots. Curry was a McDonald's All-American and Illinois Mr. Basketball, and he averaged 25 points and 10 rebounds in the state tournament his senior year.
But they also were bigger and stronger than just about everyone else they played. Going to college would have evened the competition out, forcing them to work on their games rather than rely on their talent.
Look at Bulls rookie Kirk Hinrich. After four years at Kansas, he's averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 assists, and only Jamal Crawford plays more than his 33.7 minutes per game. Skiles called him the team's best player.
"College just gave me a chance to mature, physically and mentally," Hinrich said. "You get great coaching for four years and you enjoy yourself. It was a great experience for me."
Neither Chandler nor Curry regrets skipping college. This season has been tough on both, with Curry struggling on the court and Chandler limited by injuries. But both are confident they will eventually be the stars everyone expected.
It's just going to take some time.
"Tyson Chandler wants to get better, Eddy Curry wants to get better," said Toronto's Jalen Rose, who spent 1 1/2 years in Chicago. "Unfortunately for those guys, their learning curve needs to come when their team really needs them to be great players. And right now, they're still working to be that."