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ATLANTIC: 5 PHILADELPHIA 76ers
Tim Crothers
November 01, 1999
Allen Iverson is looking for a scoring partner, and he's looking at Larry Hughes
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November 01, 1999

Atlantic: 5 Philadelphia 76ers

Allen Iverson is looking for a scoring partner, and he's looking at Larry Hughes

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By the Numbers

1998-99 record: 28-22 (tied for sixth in Eastern Conference) Coach: Larry Brown (third season with 76ers)

1998-99 PER GAME AVERAGE

POINT (rank)

FG% (rank)

REBOUNDS (rank)

TURNOVERS (rank)

76ERS

89.7 (21)

42.6 (22)

43.1 (7)

16.4 (27)

OPPONENTS

87.6 (8)

42.3 (8)

40.4 (9)

17.9 (1)

Larry Hughes is not given to self-disclosure, so the best way to learn about him is to read his body language. Philadelphia's 6'5" second-year shooting guard sports 14 tattoos, which he says represent a mural of his life. Stenciled on his right shoulder is SILKY SMOOTH, his nickname since high school. On his left forearm is written FEAR NO MAN, which sums up his disposition. This summer Hughes decided to be a bit more verbose, so he visited his favorite tattoo joint in St. Louis. Hughes asked his friend Nate to engrave all six verses of Psalm 23 across his torso from neck to navel, but to save time and considerable pain, Nate suggested they allude to the most pertinent passage. Therefore, on his left upper arm Hughes now exhibits the words THOUGH I WALK THROUGH THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH, I SHALL FEAR NO MAN. "That phrase reminds me that I should never doubt myself or be scared to face a challenge," he says.

The 21-year-old could have been a carefree junior All-America at Saint Louis University this fall. Instead he is a father figure and the primary provider to his 14-year-old brother, Justin, who received a heart transplant two years ago. He is also a doting father to his daughter, Lauryn, whom Hughes flew in for her first birthday on the opening day of the 76ers' training camp in September. Meanwhile, one of the NBA's youngest players is imploring Philadelphia coach Larry Brown to audition him for the role of Pippen to Allen Iverson's Jordan. "Allen has told me he wants me to be our second scoring threat," Hughes says. "He gets so much defensive attention that it leaves open shots for the rest of us, and I need to step into that opportunity."

As Hughes fidgeted on the bench for much of his rookie season, the 76ers offense consisted of Iverson and four guys setting picks for Iverson. On his way to averaging 26.8 points and winning the NBA scoring title, Iverson collected twice as many points and twice as many shots as any teammate, and he launched twice as many treys as the rest of the 76ers combined. After leading a vastly improved Philadelphia team to the playoffs for the first time since 1990-91, Iverson was showered with compliments, but he knows what he really needs are complements.

Enter Hughes. The eighth selection in the '98 draft, Hughes burst from the starting gate as a rookie by scoring 22 points against Iverson in the team's first public scrimmage and by sinking his first shot just two seconds into his first NBA regular-season game. However, because of the lockout, Brown considered Hughes too raw to play regularly, and he averaged just 19.8 minutes and 9.1 points as the 76ers' top scorer off the bench. Hughes spent his downtime studying the action, and after each game he would jot down a list of the things he had learned. In Philadelphia's opening-round playoff upset of Orlando, he did provide a glimpse of his future by scoring in double figures in all four games and executing a series of poster dunks on alley-oop passes from Iverson.

Iverson and Hughes have been dubbed the Flight Brothers, and they do behave fraternally. Iverson says he sees a lot of himself in Hughes. Both come from hardscrabble upbringings, both left college early with the huge expectations of lottery picks, both have a history of being the focal point of the offense, and both are generally reserved personalities until they set foot on the court. Iverson regrets that he didn't have a player to guide him when he came into the league, so he hangs out constantly with Hughes, advising him on everything from hoops to hair. After Iverson joked about Hughes's unkempt Afro throughout last season, Hughes arrived at training camp this year wearing Iversonesque cornrows. 'Allen and Larry have been extremely tight right from the beginning," Philadelphia G.M. Billy King says. "It's been good for Larry to have a mentor, and I think it's been good for Allen to be a mentor."

Hughes is a deft defender with dazzling leaping ability and a streaky shot. Hailed as a genius for switching Iverson from the point to shooting guard last season, Brown will risk moving Iverson back to the point this year for parts of games in deference to Hughes, who struggled at small forward in '98-99 and is best suited to the two. In the new arrangement, Iverson and Hughes will play together in the back-court for 15 to 20 minutes a game, with Hughes teaming up with the current starter at the point, Eric Snow, when Iverson needs a breather. "I truly believe that Larry is going to be an amazing player," Brown says. "The way we can help him the most is to let him get some of his minutes with Allen at the point. Allen can be Allen for 30 minutes, and then for 15 minutes he'll be Mo Cheeks setting up chances for Larry."

Brown hopes that rookies Jumaine Jones and Todd MacCulloch, veteran Billy Owens and returning youngsters Snow and Theo Ratliff (who could miss up to a month with a stress fracture in his left ankle) will take further pressure off Iverson. Still, none of those players represent an elixir for Philadelphia's woeful shooting. In '98-99 the Sixers shot just 42.6% from the floor (22nd in the NBA), including a league-worst 26.2% from behind the three-point line. Iverson (41.2% from the floor, 29.1% from three-point range) has vowed to improve those numbers by cutting down on his long-range bombing. However, to be a serious contender, the Sixers will have to rely on their aggressive defense, which held opponents to 87.6 points per game last season.

Iverson promises to improve his defensive game as well, insisting that this year he can join Jordan as the second player to lead the league in scoring and steals and win an NBA title, especially if his buddy Hughes blossoms. "Larry's ready to shock the world," Iverson says. "If he gives me the help I need on offense, I believe this team can win a championship."

In case Iverson proves prophetic, Hughes says he's already reserved a prime spot on his epidermis for Nate to put the trophy.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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