At heat practices early this season rookie Dwyane Wade looked as if he were enduring a hazing ritual. Assistant coaches Bob McAdoo and Keith Askins would stand at various spots in the lane while Wade drove to the hoop and assault him with the large blocking cushions normally used at NFL training camps. They were teaching him—the hard way—to take the punishment and keep driving instead of pulling up at the first sign of trouble. " McAdoo has that Hall of Fame strength, and they would really hit me," says Wade. "But now on my drives I take the contact and keep going to the basket"
He's absorbed his lessons well. After struggling to finish at the beginning of the season, Wade was averaging 17.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4-3 assists at week's end while shooting 47.4%, second among guards to Timber-wolves veteran Sam Cassell's 49.8%. "His continuation when going to the hoop is the best I've ever seen," Jazz coach Jerry Sloan said after watching Wade score 31 points in a 97-85 Miami win last month, a performance that helped him become the first rookie since Steve Francis in 1999-2000 to be named his conference's Player of the Week.
In spite of the surprise preseason resignation of coach Pat Riley, an injury-induced 0-7 start, and an undersized lineup with 6'9" Brian Grant at center, the Heat was 25-35 through Sunday and in eighth place in the East. Much of the credit goes to the 6'4", 210-pound Wade, who was the No. 5 pick in the draft despite questions about his shooting and what position he'd play. Says Heat coach Stan Van-Gundy, "The thing he has over most young players is that he's able to make adjustments."
No rookie, including LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, has improved more rapidly than Wade, 22, who wondered if he was athletic enough to beat NBA defenders off the dribble when he turned pro after two seasons at Marquette. Though he'd never played point guard, Wade has learned to recognize defenses and initiate the Heat's new motion offense. Elder teammates are now counting on him to help lead them to the playoffs for the first time in three years. "We didn't start out the season running plays for Dwyane Wade," says Grant. "He's earned that role with his slashing and cutting."
Wade must improve his three-point shooting (17 of 51 at week's end) as well as his strength: He has had a variety of injuries, including a sprained right foot on Sunday that will sideline him for seven to 10 days. A natural two guard, he'll also have to adjust as defenses stack up against him. "At the beginning of the year I was hoping to contribute and feed off my teammates," Wade says. "Now it's reversed, and the guys are feeding off me."