The Golden State Warriors had finished their early afternoon shooting drill and were repairing to the locker room to shower and dress. A few yards from the edge of the court, slouched down in the higher-priced seats at the Oakland Coliseum, Al Attles was answering his own question with a shrug. This is the time when basketball's two professional leagues select their respective rookies of the year, and the Golden State coach was wondering aloud what that really meant.
"I've never been sure just what they vote for," Attles said. "I mean, is it because a rookie is considered most valuable or most talented? Is he judged by statistics or by potential? Should he be measured by his accomplishments as an individual or by his contributions to a team? I think it should be a combination of all those things. It can't be easy, making the correct choice."
It won't be easy. There has been a rare abundance of outstanding first-year players in the NBA and ABA this season. "Give me all those rookies and three years to develop them, and you can have my whole ball club and the draft rights to my soul," says one NBA coach. At last count nine rookies were starting somewhat regularly in the 18-team NBA, nine in the 10-team ABA. The Spirits of St. Louis start rookies at both forward positions and at center, and they have the best rebounding front line in the ABA. The top offensive rebounder in each league is a first-year man. Atlanta and Seattle play with rookie-dominated lineups.
"They're all over the place," says K.C. Jones, coach of the Washington Bullets. "This is the best year I can recall. Well, I guess it's the best year since 1956 when Bill Russell, Willie Naulls and Tom Heinsohn came into the league. Almost every team is utilizing rookies."
"There are more good rookies playing now than any year I can remember," says Chicago Coach Dick Motta. "That is one reason the league is so topsy-turvy this season. Seattle plays a flock of rookies, which is why they can go out and run Boston off the court, then turn around and lose by 36 to Golden State playing without Rick Barry. Something has to explain why so many teams in the league are unpredictable."
"Predictable!" St. Louis President Harry Weltman says. "We start three rookies and have gone with as many as five. One night we look like the greatest team in pro basketball and the next two games we look like something out of the YMCA. One night we outrebounded Indiana 75-48 and lost. We also had 34 turnovers and allowed 26 steals."
As Motta says, it is just such freshmanesque brilliance and bobbles that have been the measure of both leagues all season. "That's why I don't count on rookies," he says. "We've got four here—Bob Wilson, Leon Benbow, Mickey Johnson and Cliff Pondexter—who would be right up there with the best in the league if they got to play."
At the moment the best in the NBA are probably Keith Wilkes of Golden State, John Drew of Atlanta, Leonard Gray of Seattle and Kansas City- Omaha's Scott Wedman. These four figure to be the leaders on the Rookie of the Year ballots.
But there is a ton of young talent no more than a step behind them: Brian Winters of the Lakers; Drew's teammates Tom Henderson and Mike Sojourner; Cleveland's Clarence (Foots) Walker and Campy Russell; Aaron James of the Jazz; Milwaukee's Gary Brokaw and Kevin Restani; Eric Money of Detroit; the Bullets' Leonard Robinson; Tommy Burleson, Rod Derline and Talvin Skinner, Gray's teammates at Seattle. And others.
"Like our Glenn McDonald and Kevin Stacom," says Boston Coach Tom Heinsohn. "Both could be super players, but we believe in working them into our pattern gradually."