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How do you know a young player is in the midst of a breakout NBA season? Is it when a) he is asked about his 51-point game and responds, "Which one?"; b) he shakes his head dejectedly in front of his locker and is almost apologetic after pouring in a mere 28 points; or c) he is scoring with such apparent ease against the defending world champions that Shaquille O'Neal angrily yells to his Los Angeles Lakers teammates, "Somebody guard his ass!"?
The answer is d) all of the above, which is what Antawn Jamison, the Golden State Warriors' explosive power forward, did in a week that featured almost as many fiftysomethings as show up for a Neil Diamond concert. Jamison rang up 51 in a 118-102 road loss to the Seattle Super-Sonics on Dec. 4, then scorched the Lakers two days later with another 51 in a 125-122 overtime win at home. The first outburst was impressive enough, as Jamison shot 23 of 36 from the floor, but the follow-up was a masterpiece of efficiency and clutch shooting. Jamison made 21 of 29 shots—including his last 10 on an assortment of layups, runners and 20-footers—in a memorable duel with Los Angeles swingman Kobe Bryant, who matched his 51. Their shootout generated more positive buzz than the long-woeful Warriors have heard in the Bay Area since they traded Chris Webber six years ago. "The first one was a thrill," Jamison says, "but the second one was much sweeter because of what the game meant for this franchise."
With a previous high of 37 points in his 107 games as a pro, the 24-year-old Jamison became the first player to score 50 or more points in consecutive games since Michael Jordan had three in a row 13 years ago; Jamison and Bryant became the first opponents to top 50 in the same game since the San Francisco Warriors' Wilt Chamberlain (63) and the Lakers' Elgin Baylor (51) did it on Dec. 14, 1962. Nice company for Jamison, indeed, but the star to whom he is most often compared is of more recent vintage: Toronto Raptors swingman Vince Carter, his former suitemate at North Carolina.
In the 1998 draft Golden State chose Carter with the No. 5 pick, then traded him to Toronto for Jamison, whom the Raptors had selected fourth. Jamison and the Warriors have been haunted by the deal, though some of the flak they have taken is based on the mistaken belief that the team could have wound up with Carter. After hearing that the Dallas Mavericks, who had the sixth choice, were going to trade up to No. 4 to get Jamison, the Warriors kept that from happening by paying the Raptors $500,000 to select him for Golden State. In return the Warriors selected the player Toronto wanted—Carter—then made the swap. If Golden State hadn't arranged the deal, the Raptors would have probably taken Carter one pick ahead of the Warriors.
Carter has since won the 1998-99 Rookie of the Year award, the 2000 Slam Dunk contest and an Olympic gold medal in Sydney. Jamison, meanwhile, has been trying to overcome a confidence-shattering rookie year, in which he did nothing to erase the doubts of critics who thought he was too slight to play power forward at 6'9" and 223 pounds, and too poor a shooter to play small forward. "I remember my first game. I didn't get in until the third quarter, and I couldn't do much of anything," he says. "I went home and just cried. I still have the tape of that game, and I have a lot of the newspaper clippings that said I couldn't play in this league. Some guys might want to put all that behind them, but I want to make sure I remember that game and that year the rest of my career."
Weekly phone calls from Carter helped prop up Jamison's spirits during that rookie season, in which he started half the time and averaged 9.6 points and 22.5 minutes. "I tried to help him stay positive," Carter says. "I knew what he was capable of. It just so happened that I got a chance to show what I could do before he did."
Jamison remembers the conversations as being somewhat awkward for both men, especially because their roles had once been reversed. When they were freshmen at Chapel Hill, in 1995-96, Carter struggled while Jamison thrived. "I knew Vince was trying not to make me feel bad because things were going so much better for him than they were for me," he says.
Jamison responded to his disappointing start with the industriousness that has become his trademark. He credits his parents, Albert and Kathy, for instilling in him a willingness to work. "My mom was a doctor's assistant, and after work she would go and clean an office building," says Antawn, who grew up in Shreveport, La., and in Charlotte. "My dad was in construction. He'd work until five or six in the evening, come home and sleep for a few hours, then work a second shift from 10 at night to four in the morning. If they could do that, I can go in the gym and work on my jump shot."
The off-season toil paid off in a much more promising second year in which Jamison averaged 19.6 points and 8.3 rebounds, including 4.0 on the offensive end. Though a left-knee injury ended his season after 43 games, his 10.0-point jump in scoring was the largest in four years by an NBA player appearing in more than 25 games. It helped that general manager Garry St. Jean, who had worked out the trade for Jamison, fired P.J. Carlesimo after 27 games and finished the year as coach. "A lot of credit has to go to St. Jean," Jamison says. "He wasn't afraid to put me in and let me sink or swim. He had more confidence in me than I had in myself."
After another summer of hard work, spent strengthening his knee and his game ("He was in here every day," says Dave Cowens, whom St. Jean hired as coach after last season, "not most days, every day"), Jamison is now a bona fide matchup nightmare. He began the season at small forward but moved to power forward after Danny Fort-son, who was leading the league in rebounding, was sidelined by a stress fracture in his right foot on Nov. 12. Jamison has become especially skilled at beating opposing power forwards with one or two dribbles and getting into the lane for an assortment of runners, flips and high-arcing shots, which he developed as a kid playing on an 11-foot basket in his driveway. A post-up player in college, Jamison is also effective down low, though he's not bulky enough to hold his position consistently.