First in Flight
Kenyon Martin, the No. I 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 day"
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 be."
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 Ken-yon 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 learn."