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WHEN THE NBA DRAFT commences this Wednesday, and the parade of young men wearing double-breasted suits and baseball caps approaches the podium, it will be a grade school graduation as much as anything. Commissioner David Stern will shake each draftee's hand and hand him a gift certificate to Toys-R-Us. Uniforms by Starter, dress suits by Oshkosh B'gosh. Each player will receive a (Whoa! Rad!) team logo hat and maybe even (Awww ri-i-ight!) a Popsicle.

Did anyone mention the $80 per diem NBA players get? That will buy a lot of Skittles.The draft is getting younger by the year, with players declaring themselves eligible for early entry into the NBA in record numbers. This year, three are actually high school seniors: Taj McDavid, Jermaine O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Instead of reporting to the draft board like high school graduates did in the 60s and 70s, now they report to the NBA draft board and enlist for duty in such outposts as Vancouver and Milwaukee. They can't shop at the PX, but those $6 million contracts ought to cover things nicely.

That's the way it goes with potential superstars. Just about the time one gets his driver's license, he has to sign a pro contract - but not necessarily in that order.

Besides the aforementioned players, three who played just one year of college ball announced this spring that they'll enter the draft - which means they're probably old enough for their own checking account but not old enough to buy a car without mommy or daddy cosigning. Georgia Tech's Stephon Marbury, Cal's Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Miami-Dade's Richard Matienzo are coming off their freshman seasons in college. Nine others will enter the draft after two years of college, which means they may be old enough to buy a car on their own, but they can't rent one.

Early entry into the draft doesn't necessarily mean disaster for the young man involved. Some players have left early and done remarkably well in the NBA. Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, to name a few, entered the draft early. Leaving them to play against other college players would have cruel and abusive - at least for the people that had to play against them.

Minnesota's Kevin Garnett, though no star yet, survived fine in the NBA last year after signing out of Farragut Academy without so much as a day of college. Golden State's Joe Smith and Philadelphia's Jerry Stackhouse - both of whom left college early - clearly didn't need more seasoning in order to compete in the NBA.

But for every extraordinary Joe there's a Michael Evans, who decided last year he was ready for the pros after two years at Okaloosa J.C., but wasn't drafted at all. Seward County College's Martin Lewis was picked at No. 50 in the draft by Golden State, but as far as anyone knows, he's working in a gift shop by now.

Ironically, the institution perhaps most responsible for the exodus of pubescent players to the NBA is the NCAA. Though players could leave school early before 1994, that year the NCAA declared that they could do so and still return if the right offer didn't come along. It was a no-risk proposition.

The rationale was that ordinary students can check out job opportunities without being banned from returning to college or losing their scholarships, so student-athletes should be able to, also. A student-athlete could now consider a $500,000-a-year job, just like all of us were doing when we were in school, and then change his mind and go right back to college basketball. He was free to be like all those philosophy majors who discover on their own that there's mo market for philosophers.

Since 1994, the number of early entries has grown dramatically. In 1993, 12 players entered the draft early. In 1994, the year the NCAA rules changed, 20 entered, though eight weren't even drafted. In 1995, another 19 declared themselves eligible to be drafted, two of whom withdrew.

This year, a staggering 41 players will enter the draft early. Among them are such unheralded prospects as Coppin State's Terquin Mott, Delaware State's Chris Nurse and Cal-Bakersfield's Kebu Stewart.

So if you're at the draft on Wednesday and you see a bunch of kids with tags pinned to their chests that say something like, "My name is Bobby and I belong at the Shady Grove Pre-School" don't panic. Just offer them a peanut butter and jam sandwich and a glass of milk. They aren't actually AWOL from a field trip. They're just the newest wave of NBA stars, reporting for work.