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Big Brother is watching. That's just what 14-year-old Justin Hughes is thinking as he drops a cue ball onto the pool table in the basement of his brother's suburban Philadelphia town house and lines up a shot. "Sometimes Larry gets mad at me if I don't hit the white ball," Justin says as he peers over his shoulder, anticipating the arrival of his older sibling, 76ers second-year shooting guard Larry Hughes. "He says he wants me to do it the right way."
It's not that Larry—all of 21 years old himself—enjoys pulling rank on Justin, who had a congenital heart defect and underwent a transplant three years ago. It's just that since he was in his early teens, Larry has kept a paternal watch on Justin. There were no other father figures in the house then, and Larry tried to set a proper example. "Justin's a sweetheart, but he's a kid," says the boys' mother, Vanessa. "Larry wants him to be a big boy."
Sixers coach Larry Brown wishes Hughes was as demanding of himself as he is of his brother. The eighth pick in the 1998 draft after spending only one year at Saint Louis, Hughes can create his own shot, knock down the mid-range jumper, rebound over power forwards and swoop into passing lanes like a hawk. But Brown, dissatisfied with Hughes's defensive lapses and work habits, was playing him only 21.1 minutes a game at week's end, having abandoned a ballyhooed preseason plan to make the 6' 5" swingman the team's No. 2 offensive threat behind guard Allen Iverson, the league's leading scorer. It's Brown's way of trying to turn Hughes into an All-Star, which is what many around the league believe he will become. "If Larry Hughes were with the Clippers, he'd be doing the same things Allen Iverson does," Phoenix Suns guard Penny Hardaway says. "He's got that much talent. He just hasn't had a chance to show it."
Hughes's response to Brown's form of tough love was to suggest that a trade would be welcome if it would give him the playing time he craves. Last week he nearly got his wish. In a deal that could have reshaped the Eastern Conference tide race, Philly came close to sending Hughes, along with reserves Bruce Bowen, Nazr Mohammed and Billy Owens, to the Miami Heat for small forward Jamal Mashburn. The deal fell through amid finger-pointing from both parties once word of negotiations became public. (Each side claims to be the one that pulled out.) Since then Hughes, who through Sunday was averaging 10.7 points and 3.1 rebounds, has been the subject of trade rumors involving Toronto Raptors small forward Tracy McGrady, Orlando Magic rookie small forward Corey Maggette and Golden State Warriors small forward Chris Mills, among others. Sixers executives insist they're merely listening to offers for Hughes, not shopping him. "If he works hard and keeps learning, he could have a great career here," Brown says.
Counters Hughes, "I want to play now."
Larry. Larry. Quite contrary.
After averaging 9.1 points and 3.8 rebounds in 19.8 minutes in his rookie season, mostly at small forward, Hughes reached double figures in all four games in Philadelphia's first-round playoff upset of Orlando, electrifying fans with rimrattling dunks. Then he tore up the Boston summer league. Brown felt Hughes was ready to take the next step, saying he was going to be "an amazing player." It appeared the Flight Brothers, as Iverson and Hughes had been dubbed, were ready to take off.
But shortly into this season the flight plan was scrapped. It quickly became apparent to Brown that Hughes, a natural shooting guard, didn't handle the ball well enough to play the point and that his wiry 185-pound frame made him a defensive liability against many small forwards. With Iverson playing 40 minutes a game at shooting guard, Eric Snow manning the point, Aaron McKie helping in the back-court and George Lynch providing stellar defense at small forward, Brown says he simply has no regular spot for Hughes.
Perhaps discouraged by the turn of events, Hughes let his level of intensity in practice slip. Not precipitously, teammates say, but enough to make him look bad next to tail-busters such as Lynch, McKie and Snow. "His work ethic could be better," Snow says. "Some of this stuff just comes so easy to him. He's always been better than most of the guys he's played with. It's something that happens to a lot of guys that come in the league. When he develops the attitude that I'm going to come out here and outwork everybody every day, the sky's the limit for him."
"Larry worked real hard in the summer, and I think he had it in his mind that he was going to be a starter," Brown say. "I think when it didn't happen, it was discouraging for him. He's got to get over it."