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At The Head Of His Class
Bruce Newman
February 21, 1983
Terry Cummings is preeminent among a trio of NBA rookies who graduated early to the pros and have more than made the grade
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February 21, 1983

At The Head Of His Class

Terry Cummings is preeminent among a trio of NBA rookies who graduated early to the pros and have more than made the grade

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When seven prominent college underclassmen dealt themselves into last June's NBA draft, it was a cinch that one of them would become this season's Rookie of the Year. Considering that the 1982 seniors were a lackluster group, the younger players were clearly the cream. And it was also a good bet that the No. 1 pick—whichever of the underclassmen he turned out to be—would not win the award. No top draft pick had done so since Milwaukee's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—Lew Alcindor then—in the 1969-70 season.

Sorry, James Worthy, but at the All-Star break of the 1982-83 season, history is repeating itself. He's having a year to match his name, and only an idiot would say the Los Angeles Lakers erred in making him the draft's No. 1 choice, but the smart money has the San Diego Clippers' Terry Cummings, the No. 2 pick, way out front in the rookie race and perhaps even the Indiana Pacers' Clark Kellogg ahead of Worthy. Not that he's doing poorly, but he had the bad/good—and unprecedented—luck to be drafted by a championship team. Cummings and Kellogg, like most top rookies over the years, were chosen by tail-end clubs that needed them as starters right away. So, the fact that Worthy's getting only 25.3 minutes of court time a game as a sub for the world champion Lakers is working against him. So, too, is the fact that Cummings and Kellogg may be just as good or better players than he is. Just who is the best won't be known for a couple of years, but two things are certain now. All three of these players are fast rising stars, and should Worthy become a No. 1 pick who isn't the No. 1 rookie, he'll be in fast company. Bill Walton, to name another notable top choice, didn't make Rookie of the Year, either, nor did Magic Johnson or Mark Aguirre.

Aguirre was the first selection in 1981, going to the struggling Dallas Mavericks in the second year of their existence. Although he averaged 18.7 points a game, he was overshadowed by another Mav rookie, Jay Vincent, the 24th pick in the draft who averaged 21.4 points a game, and New Jersey's Buck Williams, who was selected as Rookie of the Year. That may have hurt Aguirre's pride, but it certainly didn't damage his game. He's now a star in Dallas' playoff drive; through week's end he was averaging 25.1 ppg, fifth in the NBA.

So hang in there, James. That you could be one of the best players to come into the NBA in the last decade and still finish third in the rookie voting isn't as preposterous as it sounds. "When you're talking strictly about Rookie of the Year," says Indiana Coach Jack McKinney, "potential shouldn't count. It should be based on production and the impact a player makes on his team. But if you are talking about potential, Worthy could be the league MVP some day. Let me put it this way. If I had to choose one player to build a team around from among those three, I'd be happy to have third pick."

The other classy undergrads—Chicago's Quintin Dailey, Detroit's Cliff Levingston, Kansas City's LaSalle Thompson and Atlanta's Dominique Wilkins—are close to the big three in skill but lag behind them in court sense, which means they're not yet mature enough to perform well night in, night out at the pro level. Cummings, Kellogg and Worthy can all play both the big and small forward positions, and all complement their finesse games with hard work on the boards. In fact, as of last week Cummings and Kellogg were among only four NBA players averaging 20 or more points and 10 or more rebounds a game. The other two are Moses Malone and Larry Bird. Kellogg is probably the most versatile rookie and Worthy the quickest, but Cummings has the most charismatic game.

There was a time when it looked as if Cummings, like Aguirre a product of DePaul, might not play in the NBA this season. The Clippers, under the bizarre ownership of Donald Sterling, had become such a laughingstock—they held their training camp at a naval base, with players doing their own laundry—that Cummings and his agent, Tom Collins, insisted on a mere one-year contract so Cummings might be able to change teams after this season. It wasn't until a week into the schedule that a four-year deal was worked out and Cummings finally joined the Clippers. Coaches consider the training-camp period and exhibition games vital to a rookie's development, so naturally all Cummings had done through last week was score 23.0 points per game (12th in the league) and grab an average of 10.3 rebounds (12th best).

Cummings scored 19 points against Milwaukee in his first pro game, and it has been smooth sailing ever since, with one unnervingly dramatic exception. During the third period of a game with the Utah Jazz on Dec. 15, Cummings suddenly fainted; he did a genuine Gone with the Wind-type swoon right out there on the court. It was determined that he passed out because of an iron deficiency in his diet. A few iron tablets corrected that, and Cummings has been keeping his strength up since then by eating up the league's top forwards.

Cummings is a sinewy 6'9", 220 pounds, and though there was some concern at first that he might not be able to contain smaller, more mobile forwards, he has made his size work in his favor. "When I play a small forward," he says, "I have to keep my body on him all the time. Hit him, wear him down. But on the other end, with a small forward sticking me, I've got him. He's mine."

Cummings grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the fifth of 13 children, in circumstances so mean his mother had to sell Girl Scout cookies to keep the wolf from the door. For a long time he dreamed about becoming the first black professional hockey player, a sort of ebony Stan Mikita, the Chicago Black Hawk who was his boyhood idol. Then, when Cummings was 14, he sprouted up so rapidly, putting on 5½ inches and gaining 56 pounds, he was sometimes unable to go to parties because he didn't have shoes that fit. Subsequent winters found the erstwhile hockey fan playing hoops on a mixture of packed snow and sand, sometimes as long as seven hours a day.

For all his muscle, Cummings has shown he's more than just a power player. "He's really surprised me with his ballhandling," says Clipper Coach Paul Silas. "If we have problems bringing the ball up, we just clear the way and let Terry do it."

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