It takes only one glance at the court to see fun isn't high on
the Trail Blazers' agenda. There's Rasheed Wallace, grimacing as
if he just chugged sour milk. Next to him is Arvydas Sabonis, who
looks as though he should have an OUT OF ORDER sign posted on his
blank, oversized mug. But keep going, past the scowling Dale
Davis, past the dyspeptic Shawn Kemp, and eventually you come to
third-year shooting guard Bonzi Wells. Amazingly, on this
reserved, veteran squad, the 24-year-old Wells appears to enjoy
himself, sprinting downcourt in what appears to be a one-man
layup line, pushing himself, and Portland, into high gear.
Since Wells entered the starting lineup on Dec. 29 in place of
the ailing Steve Smith, Portland was 15-5 at week's end, and the
recovered Smith has been relegated to the role of sixth man.
During that span Wells had averaged 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds
and, more important, added energy to what had been a plodding
half-court attack. "Bonzi gets out on the break and gets easy
buckets," says point guard Damon Stoudamire. "Since I've been
here I don't think we've ever gotten easy buckets."
So how did a player who logged all of 35 minutes in his first
season with the Blazers emerge as a go-to guy on a team full of
All-Stars? The answer can be found at McCulloch Park, a cracked
slab of asphalt in Muncie, Ind., where Wells learned the game--and
the value of patience. As a kid, Bonzi followed his father,
Gawen, to the park on Saturday mornings, but for years he heard
the same thing from his old man: Nah, junior, you're not ready,
you're too small. Then, when he was 14, he finally got his shot.
"I didn't do too hot," Wells says. "They had all those veteran
tricks, holding me, putting the body on me. So I worked on my
game and went back when I was 15. After that, it was Bonzi's
world out there."
It didn't hurt that Wells grew from 5'9" to 6'4" as a freshman at
Muncie's Central High. Suddenly, the point guard who didn't make
his eighth-grade team was a post player. That post player soon
became a star swingman and two-time Mid-America Conference player
of the year at Ball State, finishing his career second to Eric
Murdock on the NCAA's alltime steals list. Drafted 11th by the
Pistons in 1998, Wells was traded to Portland before the season
for a conditional first-round pick. After a season of watching
and learning, Wells emerged in the playoffs last year to provide
instant offense off the bench, a sort of Vinnie Johnson with hops
and a headband.
Despite suffering from asthma, for which he uses an inhaler
during timeouts, Wells runs nonstop, and he has a slew of
slippery moves that make him deadly in the post. For the season,
he was shooting 53.0% from the field at week's end, an almost
unheard-of figure for a shooting guard and good for second in the
league behind Shaquille O'Neal.
So as the second half dawns, it's Bonzi's world again. "I'm an
energy guy, a guy who gets the other guys tired," Wells says.
"Then the veterans come in and go at them again."
COLOR PHOTO: SAM FORENCICH/NBA ENTERTAINMENT