As a scintillating NBA freshman class heads into the homestretch of the 1996-97 season, debate continues about who should be named Rookie of the Year. First, there's the spectacular yet flawed 76ers point guard Allen Iverson, who, Charles Barkley suggested, should be crowned Playground Rookie of the Year. Fed up with criticism of his play, Iverson declared last month that he would not speak to the press for the remainder of the season, but his agent, David Falk, quickly persuaded him that this was no way to win an honor voted on by the media.
Raptors big man Marcus Camby has made meritorious contributions, yet early-season injuries hurt him in this race. Timberwolves point guard Stephon Marbury has helped turn hapless Minnesota into a playoff team, but he has to share the credit with teammates Kevin Garnett and Tom Gugliotta.
Grizzlies forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim is the real deal on the worst team in the NBA (and one that plays after most East Coast voters have gone to bed), and Nets guard Kerry Kittles has been a consistent performer on a club rocked by erratic play and roster turnover. As New Jersey showcases Jimmy Jackson for yet another trade, Kittles's playing time is bound to suffer.
So what's a voter to do? Celtics rookie forward Antoine Walker has the solution: Pick him. "I'd be killing myself if I said I shouldn't win," Walker says. "I've worked as hard as anyone else. Look past the hype, and see who is producing." At week's end the 6'9" Walker was averaging 34.0 minutes, 16.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.26 steals per game. And although his natural position is small forward, he has played all five spots for the Celtics, who have lost a league-leading 312 man-games to injury.
"He has shown every skill you can think of," says Boston coach M.L. Carr. "Not one guy has been asked to do more for his team than Antoine."
So why is Walker such a dark horse in the rookie race? For starters, the Celtics are horrible and have had limited national TV exposure. Through Sunday, Boston was 11-46, including a 13-game losing streak, and it has a shot at finishing the season with the league's worst record. But that merely puts Walker in the company of Abdur-Rahim, Camby, Iverson and Kittles, whose teams are also lottery bound. Perhaps more important, the Boston organization is conservative when it comes to marketing, and it plans only a reserved campaign to promote Walker. Falk, who represents Walker and Kittles in addition to Iverson, has had his staff press the Celtics to push harder for their young star.
"M.L. told me they'll back me, but I understand how it is," Walker says. "The Celtics are used to winning. They're used to having Hall of Fame players. I don't want any special favors."
Rocky Mountain 'Bye?
New Nuggets general manager Allan Bristow completed a flurry of trades before the Feb. 20 deadline to give Denver about $5.5 million in cap money to spend this summer. But the real work is just beginning, and not only because Bristow must find a point guard to replace Mark Jackson (dealt to the Pacers) and run the Nuggets' up-tempo offense.
The two most valuable members of the team, forwards LaPhonso Ellis and Antonio McDyess, can become free agents in the summer of '98. Sources say McDyess is inclined to leave. Ellis, who went on a four-game tear starting Feb. 21 (28.5 points and 8.0 rebounds), was upset when Jackson was shipped out, and he privately questions the direction of the Denver franchise. The Nuggets quietly offered Ellis a seven-year extension last season while he was recovering from knee surgery, but the forward refused to sign when the team, at the last minute, withdrew a clause that would have allowed him to become a free agent after four seasons. Denver can pick up an option on Ellis for $3.6 million next season, but if the Nuggets do that rather than propose a more lucrative extension, he will likely bolt in '98.