The Kerry Kittles kit contains the Kerry Kittles highlight video, the Kerry Kittles press clippings, the Kerry Kittles bumper sticker, the Kerry Kittles button and the Kerry Kittles replica jersey. (What, no Kerry Kittles action figure?) That means the leader of the NBA Rookie of the Year campaign paraphernalia sweepstakes is ... Kerry Kittles! The Kittles kit—which is distributed by the public relations department of the New Jersey Nets and not by Kittles himself—flattens the Shareef Abdur-Rahim pop-up greeting card, makes a molehill of the mountain of printed testimonials in the Antoine Walker press packet, dwarfs the envelope full of laudatory Marcus Camby articles and totally obscures the . Allen Iverson postcards.
Why all this electioneering on behalf of the NBA's top rookies? Why all these knickknacks? Because this year the Rookie of the Year race has such a heavily populated field that the media members who vote on the award need all the help they can get. Not that any self-respecting journalist would be swayed by a bumper sticker, of course. Through independent analysis, a reporter should come to the only logical conclusion: The league's best rookie is Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers' electrifying but erratic point guard, who is the top scorer (21.6 average through Sunday) among first-year players. Unless, of course, it is Abdur-Rahim, the Vancouver Grizzlies' smooth-as-syrup forward, whose offensive improvement over the course of the season (he has averaged 18.3 points per game) has been breathtaking. Or maybe it's Kittles, a shooting guard who, at 6'5" and 179 pounds, is as thin as dental floss but has displayed an unexpected durability (36.7 minutes per game) and a consistency rare among rookies.
Then again, the top rookie could be point guard Stephon Marbury of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who was described by one Eastern Conference coach as "Iverson without the turnovers." And what about the 6'11" Camby, the Toronto Raptors' center-forward, who through Sunday had missed 17 games with injuries (including a sprained lower back) but has come on with a rush in the past month (21.1-point average in March)? Or the versatile 6'9" Walker of the Boston Celtics, who has played all five positions this season? Or the quietly efficient 6'5" Ray Allen, who was averaging 12.9 points and has solved the Milwaukee Bucks' chronic weakness at shooting guard? On second thought, can we see those pop-up cards and bumper stickers again?
The lottery picks of the 1996 draft have produced one of the richest rookie crops in memory. Not until you reach the seventh spot of that draft, where the Los Angeles Clippers chose forward Lorenzen Wright over Kittles (who was taken next), do you find a team that has reason to second-guess its pick. Moreover, several later choices have been surprisingly productive, including the Cleveland Cavaliers' 6'10" center-forward, Vitaly Potapenko, picked 12th, and three Los Angeles Lakers—two guards, 6'6" Kobe Bryant (13th) and 6'2" Derek Fisher (24th) and, most notably, 7-foot forward- center Travis Knight (29th). The final pick of the first round, Knight was selected by the Chicago Bulls, who decided three weeks later not to sign him and renounced their rights to him. He signed with the Lakers and went on to contribute the quote of the season by a rookie, referring to how NBA newcomers believe they seldom get the benefit of the doubt from officials. Asked when he feels most like a rookie, Knight replied, "When the referee blows his whistle."
Even rookies who weren't drafted last year have made major contributions. The oldest first-year player in the league, 30-year-old Dean Garrett, a 6'10" center for Minnesota, was drafted in 1988 by the Phoenix Suns but missed what would have been his first NBA season with a broken foot. He spent seven years playing in Europe. This season Garrett has become a solid starter for the Timberwolves, averaging 7.8 points and 7.1 rebounds. The Dallas Mavericks' 6'3" guard Erick Strickland, a former CBA player, has become the eighth-leading scorer (11.8 at week's end) among rookies since being signed to a 10-day contract in February.
The front-runners for Rookie of the Year, though, appear to be Abdur-Rahim and Iverson, with Marbury and Kittles each close enough to win the award with a strong finish. As in any election, personalities and popularity come into play. Iverson may be the Bob Dole of this race—saddled with a negative image that he is unwilling or unable to shake, one partly engendered by his league-worst 4.3 turnovers per game through Sunday. He seems to have been at odds with the league and its most popular players almost from the moment he put on a Sixers uniform. There was the celebrated comment about Michael Jordan (Iverson said he didn't have to respect the Bulls' star, later amending that and saying what he meant was that he didn't fear Jordan); there was the league prohibition of his black ankle braces; and a leaguewide directive against carrying the ball, which seemed aimed at Iverson's signature crossover dribble. Then there was his admission that he carries a handgun for pro-action. Unfortunately for Iverson, an endorsement from the National Rifle Association would mean nothing in this election. "I couldn't vote for him," says Atlanta Hawks assistant Stan Albeck. 'You've got to do things the right way. there has to be some consideration as far is attitude and behavior are concerned."
However, the 6-foot Iverson has a significant number of supporters who think his scoring, plus his 7.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game through Sunday, should be all that matter. "I think the Rookie of the Year has to be Iverson," says Raptors assistant Brendan Suhr. "He's a fabulous talent. He does great things on the court. I don't think you can hold the other stuff against him. He's a rookie, remember? And he's with a bad team. [The Sixers were 20-50 at week's end.] It's tough to ask a rookie to carry a team, but he tries to do it every night."
If Iverson is Dole, then Abdur-Rahim is playing the Bill Clinton role, so amiable and engaging that his flaws ("I don't know why everyone's so crazy about him," says one Western Conference general manager. "He doesn't guard anybody") seem to go unnoticed. He is the anti-Iverson, at least in terms of public image. The 20-year-old Abdur-Rahim, whose full name means noble servant of the most merciful one, has been unfailingly respectful of the league's veterans and has avoided anything resembling a controversy. This has earned him points with his elders.
But the 6'9" Abdur-Rahim, who left Cal after his freshman year, hasn't become a Rookie of the Year contender on personality alone. He has made the biggest improvement of any first-year player this season, especially on offense. He averaged 11.5 points in November, 18.9 in December, 20.0 in January and 24.5 in February before dropping off to 18.4 in March. Abdur-Rahim was named co-rookie of the month in December with Kittles before winning the distinction alone in February. (Iverson and Marbury were the November and January winners, respectively.) Among rookies, through Sunday, Abdur-Rahim ranked in the top five in scoring (18.3), rebounding (6.6), blocks (0.96) and minutes (34.5). Moreover, he plays on an even worse team—the Grizzlies were. 12-62—than Iverson's Sixers.
"It would be hard to argue against Abdur-Rahim," says Portland Trail Blazers assistant Rick Carlisle. "I like his feel for the game, his ability to go inside and outside. In this age of multidimensional players, he's a guy who can play big or small. He's the kind of player who is always going to be there for All-Star consideration, who quietly goes about his business, the kind every team wants to have as its best or second-best player."