Like a double-teamed player who has surrendered his dribble, Hornets forward Lee Nailon was in a precarious position last summer. After a rookie season in which he averaged a mere 3.9 points, ended up in coach Paul Silas's doghouse and was left off the postseason roster, Nailon had little bargaining power when his contract came up. Charlotte offered him the cheapest deal it could while retaining his rights: one year for $615,850. Only $48,573 of that would be guaranteed if he was released before opening day.
Nailon's next best option was returning to Europe, where he played in 1999-2000 after being drafted by the Hornets with the 43rd pick and failing to reach a deal with the team. Recollections of his time with Adecco Milano—the 10-hour bus rides to games and the two-a-day practices, the language barrier and the late-arriving paychecks—bounced around in his head. Although he could have earned more money overseas, Nailon accepted Charlotte's offer. "When training camp started," he says, "I had to kick ass and show I was serious, that I was done playin'."
Having stopped playin', Nailon started playing. Through Sunday he was averaging 12.6 points and 4.3 rebounds in 28.2 minutes while shooting 49.0% from the field. He had also made 41 starts before Jamal Mashburn returned from an abdominal injury on Feb. 18. "I'm not saying I'm an All-Star," says Nailon, 27, who participated in the game between rookies and sophomores over All-Star weekend, "but it feels good to know I can play in this league."
A back-to-the-basket player at TCU, where he once scored 53 points in a game, the 6'8", 241-pound Nailon had to adjust to playing outside, especially on defense. When his man would flash from the paint to the wing, he says, "I'd be down low and thinking, Now where the heck are you going?" Nailon still gets points in the post and has a velvety left-handed jumper, but 18 feet is the extent of his range. While most small forwards regularly shoot the three, Nailon had attempted only two shots (and made one) from beyond the arc at week's end. "Because of the sets we run I'm never out that far," he says, "but I'll be working on three-point shooting this summer."
Aside from his scoring, Nailon—never regarded as a workhorse during his rookie season—has won over the Charlotte coaches with his commitment to improving. "He's one of the first ones at practice and one of the last to leave," says Silas. "That's the thing I love most."
Nailon's dubious distinction as the NBA's best bargain is certain to end when his contract expires. Other teams aren't permitted to sign him until July 16, and the Hornets have the right to match any offer. But rest assured that the phone number of Nailon's agent, Larry Fox, is already on the speed dial of several G.M.'s. For now, Nailon is driving a Suburban and living in a modest Charlotte home with his wife, Marti, and their daughters, Leasia, 2, and Leeah, 1. "I'm looking forward to what might happen, but I haven't treated myself to anything yet," he says. "That would be like saying, 'I'm comfortable.' Well, I'm not."