Sacramento's Chris Webber is finally letting his play do all the
Kings power forward Chris Webber knew the tide was turning early
this season when opposing coaches began walking past him after
games and delivering the universal signal of goodwill: a pat on
the butt. "Nobody ever did that before," Webber says. "No matter
how well I played. They stayed clear of me. But now there's a
level of...of...respect. Yes. That's it. Respect."
Except Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, no one in the NBA is
playing better than the 26-year-old Webber. Through Sunday's
games he was averaging 24.9 points, 10.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists
while shooting 50.1% from the floor. "He's a monster right now,"
says Warriors coach and general manager Garry St. Jean. "When
Sacramento needs a hoop, he goes down to the left box and knocks
down that little jump hook, which has become his signature move.
If you go to double him, you're in trouble, because he's one of
the best passing big men in basketball. He's also playing defense
and rebounding and making everyone around him better."
In the past if you wanted to stop Webber, you hacked away and
forced him to earn his points at the line. Last season Webber hit
just 45.4% of his free throws, lowering his career mark to 54.1%.
Over the summer he worked, as he always has, with shooting guru
Buzz Braman. He also got vital advice from his brother David, a
sophomore guard at Central Michigan who loves to break down film.
David sat Chris in a chair and ran some video footage of him at
the line. "What he showed me was that there's a proper posture
for shooting free throws," Webber says. "You can practice all day
long, but it's not going to matter if you're doing it wrong."
By making sure not to lift the ball too high on his release,
Webber had improved his accuracy at the line to a career-high
76.4% at week's end. That's only one aspect of his overall
improvement. Kings coach Rick Adelman, who holds the unique
distinction of having received ringing endorsements from bad boys
Latrell Sprewell, Isaiah Rider and Rod Strickland, praises Webber
as "the rock that holds us together." Says Adelman of the change
he's seen in Webber, "It's called maturity."
Humility has been a factor, too. Picked No. 1 in the 1993 draft,
Webber never averaged fewer than 17.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in
his first six seasons, yet he made most of his headlines off the
court--a dispute with his coach, a marijuana possession charge for
which he was later cleared, a disappearing act after being traded
from Washington to Sacramento in May 1998. All the derogatory
descriptions of the NBA's young stars seemed to fit him: selfish,
immature, insincere. Complaining that he was misunderstood always
backfired. So did his calculated attempt to cultivate an air of
sophistication. Halfway through last season, says Webber, "I
decided to just shut up and play. I don't pat myself on the back.
I don't worry about what people think of me. I don't dwell on the
Webber knows he still has detractors. His contract dispute with
Warriors coach and G.M. Don Nelson in 1994-95 became personal,
which reflected poorly on both of them. "Two years ago I
apologized to Nellie for about the fourth time," Webber says. "I
stuck out my hand, and he shook it. A few days later he said
something negative about me again. So he's the kind of guy I try
not to think about anymore."
Webber's superior numbers were not enough to persuade the U.S.
Olympic selection committee to send him to Sydney, instead of,
say, Tom Gugliotta or Vin Baker. "So maybe I'm not all the way
there yet," he says. "I figure the Olympics will still be there
in four years, and so will I. In the meantime, it gives me an
incentive against all these other guys who got put on ahead of
While Webber has enjoyed the country's fascination with the
high-scoring Kings, who were 25-13 at week's end, he frets about
what he sees as their many shortcomings. "We might be one of the
most interesting teams in the league," he says, "but we're not
one of the strongest. We're not the most athletic, or the most
fundamentally sound, or the most mentally prepared. Coach Adelman
says the difference between us and his great Portland teams was
that they attacked every rebound. They jumped on every mistake.
We're not there yet. We haven't proven we can bang you, break you
down, come at you. I'm much more interested in us showing
consistent play, not fancy play."
To that end Webber has been spending extra time refining his
moves on the right box. He has been trying to shoot a three on
one possession, then take his defender off the dribble the next,
so he is less predictable. Webber has also been mindful of how a
big defensive stop can help kick-start Sacramento.
The wiser Webber has become more of a mentor to the young Kings,
offering tips in particular to flashy second-year point guard
Jason Williams. Among them: Don't dwell on the labels that have
been slapped on you. That's a lesson Webber learned the hard way.
D in Denver
A SURPRISE BLOCK PARTY
When Nuggets general manager Dan Issel named himself coach before
the season, he knew he wanted to play up-tempo to take advantage
of the speed of point guard Nick Van Exel. He knew he wanted to
make heavy use of swingman Ron Mercer's shooting from the
perimeter and forward Antonio McDyess's power in the post. Shot
blocking? Not a part of Issel's plan. "We never focused on it,"
says center Raef LaFrentz. "But because we're so undersized, I
think teams came into games wanting to challenge us down low."
Count that a mistake. At week's end Denver was blocking a
league-leading 8.0 shots a game, with LaFrentz (2.35), McDyess
(2.00) and backup forward Keon Clark (1.47) doing most of the
damage. That defensive presence, which also ignites the break,
has helped the surprising Nuggets stay in the thick of the battle
for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. "There's no
question shot blocking is really important psychologically,"
Issel says. "It's become a manhood thing. Guys would rather shoot
an air ball than get their shot blocked."
Especially if the guy swatting it away is a 6'11", 240-pound
forward playing out of position. At first glance LaFrentz does
not appear to have exceptional athletic skills. But he uses
impeccable timing rather than spectacular leaping to reject
shots. It also helps that he's a lefty, which means his blocking
hand is opposite most players' shooting hand. In a game against
the Hornets earlier this month LaFrentz rejected nine shots. "You
expect Antonio and Keon to get some," says Issel, "but Raef is
the one who gets you shaking your head."
LaFrentz, the third pick in the 1998 draft, blew out his knee
just 12 games into the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. Before
being sidelined he displayed a deft shooting touch for a big man
but was pegged as a soft inside defender, and teams were
instructed to take it to him. During his off-season of rehab
LaFrentz lingered in the weight room, adding muscle to his long
frame. He has been one of Denver's most consistent performers
this season: At week's end he was averaging 13.8 points and 8.0
boards and ranked third on the team in three-pointers made (40).
"You thought he might turn out to be like [journeyman] Brad
Lohaus," says Magic general manager John Gabriel, "but he's
surprised a lot of people. He's a big player who can step away
from the basket and is a better-than-average shooter. Those are
big assets because of the new rules."
While LaFrentz gets a lot of his blocks off smaller players
penetrating the paint, McDyess and Clark account for the more
acrobatic rejections. Recently, Trail Blazers forward Detlef
Schrempf appeared to have a clear lane to the basket, but Clark
swooped from behind and sent Schrempf's shot sailing into the
third row. Grant Hill, whose Pistons had 14 shots blocked by
Denver in a December game, says it's one thing to avoid one shot
blocker, such as the Hawks' Dikembe Mutombo, "but when there are
three of them out there, it's always in the back of your mind."
Now it's important that the Nuggets not get carried away by all
those rejections. Teams are using more up-fakes against them,
then slipping under when defenders bite. "That's all right,"
LaFrentz says. "At least we've got them thinking about us."
The Demand for Centers
DESPERATELY SEEKING SEIKALY
As the Feb. 24 trading deadline nears, it's time to round up the
usual suspects: centers. Short of sending a search party to track
down Bison Dele, who has vowed his playing days are over, where
should contending teams look?
Try Miami. That's where 6'11" Rony Seikaly is rehabilitating his
surgically repaired left foot. Sources close to Seikaly say he
could begin light running as soon as the first week of February,
which explains why the Heat, the Pacers, the Pistons and the
Sonics have inquired about his availability.
Seikaly, 34, was waived last summer by New Jersey, which has
refused to pay his $4.5 million salary this season. The Nets
maintain that they released him because of his lack of skill, not
his injuries, so they have no obligation to him under his
nonguaranteed deal. Seikaly and the union contend that he was cut
loose because the metatarsals in his foot collapsed last
February, one on top of another, leaving him with virtually no
arch. He underwent surgery last September to create space between
the bones, and had four screws inserted to stabilize the foot.
Seikaly's foot ailments began in 1997-98, when he was with
Orlando. League sources say that the players' association will
present a series of MRIs that show how his foot deteriorated over
the next year and a half. If the union can prove that New Jersey
cut Seikaly because of his injury, the team would be guilty of
violating his contract. A hearing is set for early March, with
newly appointed NBA arbiter Roger Kaplan presiding. Neither
Seikaly nor the Nets are commenting until then, but the union is
confident about its case.
Other NBA teams don't care how it comes out. Their only concern
is whether Seikaly can get himself in game shape soon enough to
help them for a stretch run. "I'm not going to lie to you--we'd be
interested," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "He can rebound
and run the floor, although probably not quite as well as he used
to. He's a good kid, and he can score in the post. What more do
Indiana has a $2 million exception at its disposal to lure
Seikaly, who, sources say, is eager to return and finds the
Pacers appealing. Yet his most ardent suitor is still Detroit,
which was left with a gaping hole when Dele abruptly retired in
September. The Pistons call Seikaly almost weekly to check on
where his foot--and his heart--is.
Line of the Week
Wizards forward Juwan Howard, Jan. 21 versus Indiana: 44 minutes,
16-of-26 FG, 4-of-5 FT, 36 points, 10 rebounds, 5 assists. If
Howard was trying to impress his new boss, he succeeded: The big
numbers produced a 123-113 Washington victory.
For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to cnnsi.com/basketball.
COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO A jump hook from the left block has become a signature move for Webber, who is outplaying everyone not named Shaquille.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO/NBA PHOTOS The southpaw LaFrentz (left) and McDyess are giving penetrating players pause.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (WILLIAMS)
COLOR PHOTO: KEN SMITH/NBA PHOTOS
Around The Rim
Teams are in hot pursuit of 76ers second-year guard Larry Hughes.
The Heat was leading the derby with an offer of Jamal Mashburn,
but Miami coach Pat Riley pulled back when he couldn't figure out
which players he would have to waive to make the deal work.
League sources say the Magic offered rookie Corey Maggette but
refused to add a first-round pick. The Cavaliers also discussed a
swap of Hughes and Matt Geiger for Shawn Kemp....
The Celtics continue to peddle talented but erratic forward
Antoine Walker, who's a difficult sell because he's a base-year
player. A team that trades for him must absorb $9 million
against its cap but can give up players earning a total of only
$4.5 million--Walker's base-year salary. Says one G.M., "Boston
is trying to give him away."...
The Leon Smith saga continues. After jumping from high school to
the Mavericks, Smith stormed out of a rookie-camp practice,
refused to go to a European or developmental team, tried to
commit suicide and allegedly threatened his girlfriend. (He has
a Feb. 3 court date.) With the help of the union he's
negotiating a settlement with Dallas that would pay him his
three-year, $1.45 million salary over a 10-year period. Smith
has been working out with former NBA forward (and current
players' association official) Purvis Short, who says, "There's
no doubt he can play in this league."...
Here's why Kevin Garnett is our choice of the new generation:
After a game he apologized to Karl Malone for leading him in the
Don't call it a family feud--there are no relations on either side
of this name-based matchup. The all-Davis team would rule the
boards, but the all-Williamses have more quickness and outside
Eric (Celtics) SF Ricky (Hornets)
Jerome (Pistons) PF Dale (Pacers)
Scott (Bucks) C Antonio (Raptors)
Walt (Rockets) SG Hubert (Mavericks)
Jason (Kings, above) PG Baron (Hornets, above)
Monty (Magic) 6th Emanual (Sonics)