First in Flight
Kenyon Martin, the No. 1 draft pick, is at the top of a so-far
undistinguished rookie class
Nets forward Kenyon Martin was limping badly after practice last
Friday. Eight months ago he snapped his right fibula and
dislocated his right ankle, and a hefty ice bag was now taped to
the damaged leg. As Martin lowered himself into a chair by the
court, a pack of reporters converged on him. "This is an everyday
thing," he said, weary of discussing the leg. "I ice it every
Martin, the No. 1 pick (out of Cincinnati) in last June's draft,
is likely to field questions about his injury for most of the
season. Though the 2000 rookie class has been remarkably
unproductive, Martin has emerged as its top player, showing
courage by playing through pain; at week's end he was the
league's third leading shot blocker with 3.11 rejections per
game. Still, the Nets might not see the real Martin until next
season. "Kenyon can't do today what he could do a year ago," says
general manager John Nash. "He's not as confident as he'd like to
The longest, hardest part of any major rehabilitation is
forgetting that the injury ever happened. "If I do think about
it, it's way, way in the back of my mind," Martin says. "I've got
to keep strong, make sure I take care of it, don't spend a
tremendous amount of time on my feet. Of course it's going to
hurt, but I've got to tough it out."
Martin has had most of his trouble on offense, shooting only
38.0% from the floor through Sunday's games. "Sometimes you see
him aiming at the basket when he shoots, like a pitcher who walks
the first couple of batters and starts trying to steer the ball
over the plate," says Nash. Nets rookie coach Byron Scott tried
to nudge Martin back on track by giving him a little
psychological push, questioning his work ethic late in the
preseason. "He reacted by saying, 'Coach, you're going to see the
real Kenyon Martin,'" Scott recalls, "and since that day I've
been seeing him. There are times in games and practices when he's
not thinking about the leg, when he's just reacting as a
ballplayer, and then you can see how good he's going to be."
The 22-year-old Martin had his best game on Saturday night at the
Meadowlands, where he faced the Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal, also 22.
The 6'11", 226-pound O'Neal, benefiting from four years of
experience with the Trail Blazers, was more polished offensively,
but the 6'10", 234-pound Martin was up to the challenge, scoring
15 points (to O'Neal's 23) and matching his rival with five
blocked shots and 13 rebounds in New Jersey's 97-92 victory.
The Nets have clearly become Stephon Marbury's team--he has proved
to be the best point guard in the East--but Martin has helped
shore up a front line that's missing Keith Van Horn, who is
expected to return from his broken left leg next month. It's no
stretch to say that New Jersey, 5-4 at week's end, wouldn't have
gone over .500 for the first time since 1997-98 if it had not
used its top draft pick on Martin.
The former Bearcat is the only certain impact player from this
year's draft--the only rookie averaging more than 30 minutes and
scoring in double figures (10.4 points per game, along with 6.8
boards, through Sunday). With so many players entering the league
straight out of high school, a rare four-year collegian such as
Martin, bad leg and all, has a huge advantage in preparation. "I
would agree; this hasn't been a stellar start for this class,"
says Magic G.M. John Gabriel. "No one has jumped out yet."
For now, though, the Nets are on their way to establishing the
best one-two rookie punch in the league. Joining Martin at the
top of the rookie stats is the unlikely Stephen Jackson, a former
McDonald's All-America who turned pro straight out of Oak Hill
Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., after failing to qualify
academically for Arizona. The Suns cut the spindly 6'8" Jackson
after drafting him in the second round in 1997, and he played in
the CBA, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic before landing with
the Nets, who are starting him in Van Horn's absence.
"I'm 10 times better than I was when I was drafted," says
Jackson, the leading rookie scorer through Sunday with 11.6
points per game. "Those young guys are going to find out that
this game is more mental than physical. There's so much to
Breakaway European League
Bull Market for Foreign Stars
The value of European NBA standouts such as Toni Kukoc and
Arvydas Sabonis shot up last month when 24 of the Continent's top
clubs started their version of the old ABA. The new Euroleague,
run by ULEB (the French acronym for the Union of European
Basketball Leagues), is competing for talent against the
traditional 20-team SuproLeague, which continues to be managed by
the international basketball federation (FIBA). The two entities
will bid heavily for the NBA's European players because they'll
be more likely than American players to sign up and because
leagues usually limit the number of non-Europeans per team to
two. Agents on both sides of the Atlantic hope to profit from the
first bidding war since the NBA and ABA merged in 1976.
The new league came together last spring after FIBA signed a
TV-and-sponsorship package worth only $20 million for the
SuproLeague next season. The ULEB teams responded by negotiating
a package worth at least $35 million for their debut season,
which began in October. In effect the pool of money to pay elite
players in Europe more than doubled overnight.
"The great European players are going to be the ones to benefit,"
says Chicago-based agent Herb Rudoy. His clients--Kukoc, 32, and
Sabonis, 35--aren't ready to cash in yet. Kukoc signed a
four-year, $29 million deal with the 76ers last summer; Sabonis
has a year left on his contract with the Trail Blazers.
The 22 Europeans playing in the NBA this season may use that
status as a bargaining chip. Serbian guard Marko Jaric, the first
pick in the second round of the June draft, spurned the Clippers
for a three-year, $3 million deal with TeamSystem Bologna of the
Euroleague--more than he would have earned in the NBA. "Some
people think the two European leagues will come back together
after a year," says Kenny Grant, an American agent based in
Europe. "I hope not."
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN A bidding war in Europe might tempt stars such as Kukoc to go home.
Around The Rim
Sonics G.M. Wally Walker had no idea how close his coach came to
being canned. Embattled Paul Westphal walked into the locker room
after a loss at Orlando dropped the team to 1-3 and told his
players he would resign if they wished. Gary Payton refused to
allow a vote, saying that firing the coach is the G.M.'s
responsibility. "Paul is an honorable guy," Walker says, "and he
was doing what he felt was in the team's best interests." Since
the nonvote, the Sonics have gone 3-4....
Pacers point guard Travis Best, who is playing the best
basketball of his five-year career, is willing to go to the
bench when Jalen Rose returns, perhaps this week, after
rehabbing his fractured left wrist. "It's one of those things I
can't control," says Best, who will still join Rose and Reggie
Miller on the court in the fourth quarter....
The Magic insists the healing of Grant Hill's surgically
repaired ankle was not delayed by his playing in two games at
the beginning of the season. (He has been sidelined since Nov.
3.) "We put him through an X-ray every seven days, and every two
weeks he has a bone scan," says Orlando G.M. John Gabriel. The
team hopes to establish a timetable by the end of the month for
Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is learning that it can be dangerous
to pay close attention to the referees. Since he asked his staff
to chart the refs' calls to pick up tendencies and biases, Cuban
has earned a technical (and a $5,000 fine) at Sacramento and
been escorted from the court in Phoenix for berating ref Hue