Rookie cards have become an integral part of the trading card industry. Securing a top flight rookie and watching him blossom into a superstar has not only proved gratifying to collectors, but a financial windfall to boot.

Which brings us to the case of the NBA lockout, which hasn't really caused much of a problem for fans or collectors up until this week when the first games of the season were to have been played. It would be the curtain raisers for rookies drafted last June by NBA clubs it wasn't a particularly strong draft but that isn't of concern for now and collectors could watch to see if investments in previously unheralded or low profile college stars translated in to the right investment.

The NBA lockout, even if it ends this week, will cause considerable problems for rookies and, as a result, trouble for collectors.

Even the most optimistic projection wouldn't have the NBA season starting until around Thanksgiving. The players haven't been keeping in game shape (some never do) and the exhibition season would have been the right forum for working out the kinks for veterans and allowing rookies to show their talents. With the exception of a Tim Duncan, few rookies started from game one last season. They had to prove their worth to their coaches and that usually came by displaying their wares in actual real-season games. Because the current crop of incoming rookies featured no real superstars or players who could turn a franchise around, it will make things doubly difficult. In addition, there were several underclassmen who elected to opt for the NBA rather than stay with their collegiate program, a decision several of them are probably regretting now as their schools gear up for the start of the collegiate season in two weeks and they are stuck without a program or a job.

With no exhibition games to showcase their talents, first and second round draft picks and those occasional undrafted free agents who slip through the cracks haven't been able to convince coaches (and collectors) they have the potential to make it big in the NBA.

When the lockout ends, there is likely to be an abbreviated exhibition schedule to get veterans and rookies in playing shape. But it will be limited and most veteran coaches will have more of an eye of seeing how much work their returning veterans have than having any type of real "spring training" like camp to weed out potential rookie stars.

As a result, only the first round draft picks are likely to receive much in the way of meaningful playing time early in the season. The veteran clubs with the veteran rosters will likely enjoy a sizeable advantage over teams that were counting on the contributions of draft picks and free agents.

This will spell problems for collectors. How are you going to invest in the right rookie card if that player isn't going to play very much (or will even get cut)? Further complicating the situation for both general managers of NBA teams and collectors are free agents. Under NBA rules, unrestricted free agents were not allowed to negotiate with any club, even their own, during the lockout. A top prize like Scottie Pippen, who has been disdainful of Chicago Bulls' management through their run of six NBA titles in the 90's, may wind up staying with Chicago instead of say, Phoenix, because of the lockout. Other marginal players who are free agents face an uncertain future because of the relatively short amount of time they will have to try out and negotiate with new teams.

Then there is the whole issue of whether Michael Jordan will return or whether his refusal to talk about whether he was coming back for another season was predicated on helping the union in its stand with the NBA owners.

In other words, it's going to be a mess.

Some solace in knowing players taken in the first 15 picks of the first round of the draft are still likely to get guaranteed, no-cut contracts, meaning they are assured of some stability in their first three years in the league. After that, particularly in the second round and for players who weren't drafted at all, it's a crapshoot. The longer the lockout goes, the more precarious the situation will be. It seems inconceivable the entire season would be wiped out; it's never happened before in the history of the four major professional leagues and won't happen this year with pro basketball.

But it isn't a good time to be a rookie; and it certainly isn't a good time to be a collector of NBA rookie cards. Better hang on to those Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire paraphernalia until the NBA can get its act together.