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A Hawk Soars Higher
Rick Telander
March 04, 1991
Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta is having the best year of his long career
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March 04, 1991

A Hawk Soars Higher

Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta is having the best year of his long career

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Dominique is a showman," says Atlanta Hawks president Stan Kasten of his team's All-Star forward. "People denigrate that, but it's important. Real important. In the old ABA, coaches used to call a timeout whenever the Doc dunked. Don't let the crowd get fired up. Coaches do the same thing against Nique."

Here comes 6'8", 200-pound Dominique Wilkins against the Dallas Mavericks last Saturday, one third of a three-on-two Hawk fast break. He passes the ball to guard Spud Webb, gets it back, jumps and slams home a windmill, rim-rocking thunder jam that brings the crowd at the Omni in Atlanta to its feet. Dallas coach Richie Adubato looks down in disgust and frustration. He calls a timeout—just as those ABA coaches used to against Julius Erving.

But it's hopeless. The Hawks are ahead by 20 points late in the first half, and they'll coast to a 122-107 victory. More than that, they're ahead of Dallas by light-years in showmanship, that luminous midair realm frequented by a handful of NBA stars. When Wilkins—two-time champion and two-time runner-up in the NBA slam-dunk contest—slams, the other team flinches.

Everybody knows that. Say the name Dominique Wilkins and what comes to mind is a half-out-of-control, uncoachable dunking machine. He is a showman, no doubt, not a well-rounded player, not somebody who does the little things-pass, block out, rebound, play tough defense or, god forbid, deal out assists. He just scores.

So check this out: In his ninth season Wilkins is now a complete player, or at least as close to one as he is ever likely to be. Which is pretty darn close, within hand checking distance of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the guys who win all the big trophies. The NBA's second-highest active career scorer for average (26.1 points a game), Wilkins is still racking up points—his 26.5 points a game at week's end was fifth best in the league for this season—but he's also doing everything else with newfound vigor. Never before has he rebounded so well (8.8 a game) or had so many steals (1.8 a game). For the first time in his career Wilkins is ranked in the top 20 in the NBA in categories other than scoring: After last weekend he was 19th in three-point shooting percentage, 16th in rebounding and 20th in steals.

And then there are those amazing assists, amazing because in years past giving the ball to Wilkins was like giving the ball to an eight-year-old street urchin—it was gone for good. His assist average this season (3.3) isn't Stocktonesque, to be sure, but it's nearly a full assist higher than his career average, and it shows his new understanding of the beauty of dishing off.

What has made Wilkins, Atlanta's best player, change this late in his career? "It's got to be Bobby Weiss," Wilkins says.

Weiss is the former San Antonio Spurs coach (1986-88) who replaced Mike Fratello as the Hawks' boss last May. He has gradually changed the attitudes of what may have been the most selfish team in the league. "For a group that at one time would rather pass kidney stones than a basketball, I think we've made progress," Weiss said after the Hawks had 32 assists against Dallas.

In Wilkins's case, what is remarkable is that he is scoring his points while taking fewer shots (20.2 a game) than at any time since 1983-84. Put simply, Wilkins has become more efficient.

"Nique works so hard. He loves the game, and he never takes a night off," says Kasten. "People always talk about what he doesn't do. But what more could you ask than what he does?"

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