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Original Issue

Baby Boomers Shaquille O'Neal may be the Rookie of the Year, but it's his classmates who make this the year of the rookie

TOM GUGLIOTTA OF THE WASHINGTON Bullets was escorted into the low
post at a recent practice session; there he continued a dialogue with
assistant coach Bill Blair about acting like a real NBA player
instead of a -- ugh! -- rookie.
''When you get the ball, you've got to turn and take it right to
the hole,'' said Blair, waving his hands. ''If you don't force your
way in there like you mean it, go up hard, then grunt and groan like
you've been killed, the refs are just going to say, 'Shoot, there's
another one of them damn rookies.' Now, see, you catch and kind of
turn and dribble away from the basket, and say ((here Blair lapsed
into a wimpy, singsongy voice)), 'Oh, hi, I'm Tom Gugliotta from N.C.
State.' You ain't going to get nowhere talkin' like that! You'll be
just some damn rookie.''
In point of fact, the Bullets' prize first-year forward has been
much more than some damn rookie. And he has plenty of company among
the 56 players who make up the NBA's class of 1992-93. In a league
that is now Magic-less and Bird-less, this season's rookie crop has
been the most-talked-about subject nationwide -- the Phoenix Suns and
the Dallas Mavericks (for completely different reasons)
notwithstanding. ''The last few rookie classes, to be honest, haven't
contributed much,'' says Seattle SuperSonic general manager Bob
Whitsitt. ''But several members of this year's class have a chance to
be impact players as rookies and for a long time beyond.''
These rookies are a fascinating collection. Some have colorful
nicknames, like Fonz (LaPhonso Ellis of the Denver Nuggets), Spoon
(Clarence Weatherspoon of the Philadelphia 76ers), Sweet Pea (Lloyd
Daniels of the San Antonio Spurs), Wookie (Sean Rooks of the Mavs),
Zo (Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets) and, of course, the
aforementioned Googs. There are rookies with Serbian names (Radisav
Curcic of Dallas), Dickensian names (Anthony Avent of the Milwaukee
Bucks), show-biz names (Tony Bennett of the Hornets) and Oxbridge
names (Dexter Cambridge of the Mavs). The Suns' Oliver Miller looks
like he's too fat to be an NBA player, and the Indiana Pacers' Malik
Sealy seems to be too skinny, yet both appear to be keepers. Daniels,
a recovering drug abuser, is playing with a bullet in one of his
shoulders, and Mourning is playing with a chip on each of his. The
Minnesota Timberwolves' Christian Laettner is attracting groups of
shrieking teenyboppers, while Mourning has already launched a locker
room tirade towards a female reporter.
You want human interest? Just look at Dallas. Free-agent rookie
Walter Bonds gives haircuts free of charge to his teammates; Rooks, a
second-round pick who is doing a fine job at center, developed his
toughness by helping his parents train animals (including alligators)
for movies; and another free agent, Cambridge, who is working his way
back into condition after breaking his right leg, used to hunt sharks
in his native Bahamas.
There are even two prodigal sons in the class, fourth pick Jim
Jackson of the Mavericks and 17th pick Doug Christie of the Sonics.
Both are back at their alma maters (Jackson at Ohio State, Christie
at Pepperdine) taking courses toward their degrees while their agents
try to hack out contract agreements.
Not since 1984, when the draft produced monster talents Michael
Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Sam Perkins
and Alvin Robertson, have so many young players caught on so quickly.
And just as in the 1984-85 season, when Jordan leaped onto the scene
with the best rookie stats (28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists)
in 15 years, one shining newcomer has reduced each of his classmates
to the status of participants in a race to determine who's No. 2.
''Rookie runner-up,'' muses Gugliotta. ''I don't think they give an
award for that, do they?''
Barring something very unusual -- ''Like maybe a bomb or
something,'' says New York Knick rookie Hubert Davis -- the Orlando
Magic's Shaquille O'Neal will be the NBA Rookie of the Year.
Outstanding classmates like Mourning, Laettner and Gugliotta don't
have a chance. Bill Cartwright of the Chicago Bulls knows how they
feel. In 1979-80, Cartwright, then a Knick, averaged 21.7 points and
8.9 rebounds in an eye-opening rookie season, yet he collected nary a
vote for Rookie of the Year. That's because Bird got 63 of 66 votes
and Magic received the other three.
One way to judge the quality of a draft is by the success -- or
lack thereof -- of its No. 2 pick. Some mediocre drafts have
yielded ho-hum second picks like Steve Stipanovich (behind Ralph
Sampson in '83), Wayman Tisdale (Patrick Ewing in '85), Armon Gilliam
(David Robinson in '87) and Danny Ferry (Pervis Ellison in '89). But
this season's No. 2 is big bad Zo, a sure No. 1 in most years and a
possible All-Star next month in Salt Lake City. Twelfth pick Harold
Miner of the Miami Heat looked like he might be a big-time bust,
having struggled to find his niche on a team replete with midsized
players like himself. But over the last seven games through Sunday,
Miner averaged 17.4 points and seemed to be coming on.
There is no single reason why this rookie class has been so
spectacular. To begin with, they are getting the chance. Seven of the
11 lottery picks became instant starters, and one of the ones who
isn't starting is Jackson, who would certainly be the woeful Mavs'
mainstay at off-guard were he not in the classroom. Veteran NBA
coaches like Don Nelson of the Golden State Warriors and Wes Unseld
of the Bullets are known for being wary of rookies, yet Nelson had
guard Latrell Sprewell in the starting lineup on opening night, and
Unseld has deployed only one player for more minutes than Gugliotta.

Then, too, a good many teams needed immediate help. No lottery
team gave up its spot in the '92 draft, so every one of the first
nine picks (in order, O'Neal, Mourning, Laettner, Jackson, Ellis,
Gugliotta, Walt Williams of the Sacramento Kings, Todd Day of the
Bucks and Weatherspoon) went to teams that desperately needed an
infusion of talent. Could the Timberwolves, for example, even pretend
that Laettner couldn't beat out Thurl Bailey? And after trading
Barkley, could the 76ers claim that Weatherspoon was anything but
Barkley's heir apparent at small forward? Of course not.
Predicting stardom for rookies after only two months of action is
an iffy proposition but -- what the heck -- let's get iffy. Leaving
O'Neal out of the mix, at least six other rookies (Mourning,
Laettner, Gugliotta, Williams, Robert Horry of the Houston Rockets
and Anthony Peeler of the Los Angeles Lakers) have established
themselves as probable All-Stars this year or in future seasons;
another three (Ellis, Weatherspoon and Avent) can be tabbed as solid
pros. A handful of others are strong maybes for the latter category.
And when Jackson ultimately signs -- whether it's with Dallas or any
other team -- there will be another member of the All-Star group.
If the voting for the rookie runner-up were held right now,
Mourning, Gugliotta and Laettner would all get their share. Like all
rookies, each is prone to up-and-down performances, but the roller
coaster is always fun to watch.
Mourning had one of the more extraordinary debuts ever, against
the Pacers on Nov. 13, when he either shot or committed a turnover
the first 12 times he touched the ball. When asked to assess
Mourning's play, teammate Muggsy Bogues later said, with no intended
irony, ''He's unselfish once in a while.'' In short, Zo has never met
a 20-footer he didn't like. That's understandable, considering whence
he came. Watching Mourning take a 15-footer before a game last month,
Hornet coach Allan Bristow said, ''He would've probably gotten
scolded for taking that shot at Georgetown. Can you blame him for
enjoying the freedom?'' No.
Though there might be some hot dog in Mourning, there is most
assuredly no dog. A scorer (18.3 a game through last weekend),
rebounder (9.7), shot blocker (3.72) and shot changer, he plays with
ferocious competitiveness. He even got the requisite altercation with
the Detroit Pistons' Bill Laimbeer out of the way early -- Laimbeer
was fined $6,500 and Mourning $5,000 after a brief shoulder-bump
confrontation in Charlotte on Dec. 23.
But Mourning really showed that he was a rookie after a 110-101
loss to Phoenix on Dec. 9 in Charlotte. Either unaware of an NBA rule
requiring that reporters of both sexes be given equal access to the
locker room, or undeterred by it, he asked Aileen Voisin of The
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who was interviewing forward Larry
Johnson at a locker nearby, to leave the premises while he got
dressed. Voisin declined, and Mourning pressed the issue, rudely.
Finally, Voisin, sounding like Bullet assistant Blair, said, ''Act
like a pro, rookie!'' The intervention of Johnson, who backed
Voisin's right to be in the locker room, prevented what could've been
an ugly scene. Under orders from the Hornets, Mourning later
apologized to Voisin.
Laettner has had no such incidents with reporters, largely because
he barely acknowledges their existence. In fact, that's precisely how
he treats a great portion of the human race. His abrasive
personality, no doubt, was one reason why teammates Chuck Person,
Doug West and Micheal Williams have publicly accused him of being
selfish on the court, and a lack of team chemistry was a factor in
the firing of coach Jimmy Rodgers on Jan. 11.
But the good news for the Wolves is that Laettner is far too
talented, too confident and too arrogant to be the Second Coming of
fellow Dukie Ferry. Laettner can get his shot off in traffic (17.9
points per game), he can rebound (8.1), he's tough (34 minutes on
average), and he's friends with Stephen King. What else could you
want from a rookie? The best analysis of Laettner's game comes from
Minnesota general manager Jack McCloskey: ''He's going to become the
player he already thinks he is.''
There is very little of Laettner's arrogance in Gugliotta, who
wears a Wally Cleaveresque look of earnestness both on and off the
court. Gugliotta's biggest struggle, besides his penchant for
eschewing the paint for long-range jumpers, has been coming to terms
with the B-word. ''I heard myself compared to Larry Bird once in a
while when I was in college,'' says Gugliotta, ''only then I was
always 'the poor man's Larry Bird.' '' The comparison without the
qualifier has already been made by, among others, Knick coach Pat
Riley and Jordan. ''It's legit,'' said Jordan after Gugliotta scored
25 points and got 13 rebounds in a 107-99 loss to the Bulls on Dec.
17. ''He's the closest thing to Bird that I've seen, and not just
because he's white.'' Said Utah Jazz guard Jeff Malone after
Gugliotta hung a 39-point, 15-rebound line on the Jazz in a 126-109
Bullet victory on Nov. 21, ''Googs showed me he can shoot, pass,
rebound, hit the open man and run the floor. What else is there?''
Well, he doesn't know Stephen King.
The Kings' Williams also belongs in the future All-Star class,
though it's hard to say at what position -- he's a 6 ft. 8 in. Swiss
Army knife who has played every position this season. His most likely
permanent spot will be small forward, but doubts about his touch
remain: At week's end he was shooting .453 from the field. Still, he
shows remarkable efficency, averaging 14.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and
2.5 assists in just 25 minutes. Williams has guts, too. He has
reversed a trend by wearing his socks at knee length, partly as
homage to his idol, former San Antonio star George Gervin, and partly
because he feels it helps him ward off shinsplints.
Unlike most young off-guards, the Lakers' Peeler, the No. 15 pick,
knows the difference between a good shot and a bad one, as his .490
shooting percentage shows. He also has excellent range, as evidenced
by his .372 conversion rate on three-pointers. As soon as Los Angeles
general manager Jerry West, the % NBA's shrewdest judge of talent,
picked Peeler, thereby ignoring a checkered past that included a
conviction on a felony weapons charge, we should've known that Peeler
was a major talent.
So is Houston's 6 ft. 9 in. Horry, the 11th pick, who has started
at small forward since day one. He is a scorer (10.6 points per
game), a rebounder (5.4) and, especially, a shot blocker (45 in 34
games), and with some work on his ball handling he could be another
Scottie Pippen. Like Gugliotta, Horry was roundly booed by the home
fans when his selection was announced at the draft back on June 24
-- Bullet fans wanted Williams, who attended nearby Maryland, while
Rocket watchers preferred Miner -- but Horry has proved to be an
ideal fit. In more ways than one. Like the H in Hakeem, the H in
Horry is silent. Perfect.
Below this sextet of future All-Stars is a trio headed by Ellis,
who says of himself, ''I feel I'm a great talent. I run the floor
very well. I can score. I rebound.'' And someday he'll become the
player he already thinks he is, right, Jack? Put Weatherspoon next to
him in that solid-pro category, and don't worry about Spoon's feeling
pressure from the inevitable comparisons with Barkley. Besides,
Weatherspoon barely opens his mouth. One thing he has said, however,
makes a lot of sense: ''If I'm not the next Barkley, I don't want to
be considered a failure.'' The other solid pro is power forward
Avent, who played last season in Italy after being selected 15th by
the Atlanta Hawks in the 1991 draft. (He ended up in Milwaukee as
part of a three-way deal involving the Bucks, the Hawks and the
Nuggets.) He is Milwaukee's top rebounder, at 6.1 a game.
Heading the intriguing ''maybes'' are Daniels, the personal
reclamation project of deposed coach Jerry Tarkanian, and Miller, a
Big O if there ever was one. Daniels, whose role has diminished under
new coach John Lucas, remains 10th among rookies in scoring (11.5
points per game). But he has come so far so fast (SI, July 8, 1991)
that it would be ridiculous to classify him as anything but a
question mark.
As for Miller, who spent two weeks on the injured list in December
partly because his 300-pound bulk was causing him a variety of aches
and pains, he must overcome recent NBA history that says fat is not
where it's at. (Pick your example -- Benoit Benjamin, Mel Turpin or
John ((Hot Plate)) Williams.) ''It's a lot easier to get a player
into shape than teach him how to play basketball,'' says Phoenix
coach Paul Westphal. We'll see.
| And we'll see about Atlanta power forward-center Adam Keefe
(No. 10), who has yet to find his niche but is most assuredly better
than Greg Butler, another big frontcourtman out of Stanford. And
about the Portland Trailblazers' long-range bomber Tracy Murray (No.
18), who has already shown he can start in a pinch for the NBA's
most-talent-laden team. And about the Nuggets' Bryant Stith (No. 13),
whose promising start at shooting guard was curtailed by a broken
right foot. And about Davis (No. 20), a guard who has continued to
draw praise, but not heavy minutes, from Riley.
Still, above them all is Shaquille, who through Sunday was
averaging 22.8 points (10th in the league), 15.0 rebounds (second)
and 4.00 blocks (third). Here's something for you future rookies to
ponder. Shaq's brother, Jamal, a 12-year-old junior high phenom in
San Antonio, is, according to his father, Philip, ''bigger and better
than Shaquille was at that age.'' Let's see, give Jamal a couple of
years in college before applying for early entry into the NBA draft,
and that means 2001 won't be a very good year to be a rookie.