Then, too, a good many teams needed immediate help. No lottery team gave up its spot in the '92 draft, so every one of the first nine picks (in order, O'Neal, Mourning, Laettner, Jackson, Ellis, Gugliotta, Walt Williams of the Sacramento Kings, Todd Day of the Bucks and Weather-spoon) went to teams that desperately needed an infusion of talent. Could the Timberwolves, for example, even pretend that Laettner couldn't beat out Thurl Bailey? And after trading Barkley, could the 76ers claim that Weatherspoon was anything but Barkley's heir apparent at small forward? Of course not.
Predicting stardom for rookies after only two months of action is an iffy proposition but—what the heck—let's get iffy. Leaving O'Neal out of the mix, at least six other rookies (Mourning, Laettner, Gugliotta, Williams, Robert Horry of the Houston Rockets and Anthony Peeler of the Los Angeles Lakers) have established themselves as probable All-Stars this year or in future seasons; another three (Ellis, Weatherspoon and Avent) can be tabbed as solid pros. A handful of others are strong maybes for the latter category. And when Jackson ultimately signs—whether it's with Dallas or any other team—there will be another member of the All-Star group.
If the voting for the rookie runner-up were held right now, Mourning, Gugliotta and Laettner would all get their share. Like all rookies, each is prone to up-and-down performances, but the roller coaster is always fun to watch.
Mourning had one of the more extraordinary debuts ever, against the Pacers on Nov. 13, when he either shot or committed a turnover the first 12 times he touched the ball. When asked to assess Mourning's play, teammate Muggsy Bogues later said, with no intended irony, "He's unselfish once in a while." In short, Zo has never met a 20-footer he didn't like. That's understandable, considering whence he came. Watching Mourning take a 15-footer before a game last month, Hornet coach Allan Bristow said, "He would've probably-gotten scolded for taking that shot at Georgetown. Can you blame him for enjoying the freedom?" No.
Though there might be some hot dog in Mourning, there is most assuredly no dog. A scorer (18.3 a game through last week-end), rebounder (9.7), shot blocker (3.72) and shot changer, he plays with ferocious competitiveness. He even got the requisite altercation with the Detroit Pistons' Bill Laimbeer out of the way early—Laimbeer was fined $6,500 and Mourning $5,000 after a brief shoulder-bump confrontation in Charlotte on Dec. 23.
But Mourning really showed that he was a rookie after a 110-101 loss to Phoenix on Dec. 9 in Charlotte. Either unaware of an NBA rule requiring that reporters of both sexes be given equal access to the locker room, or undeterred by it, he asked Aileen Voisin of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who was interviewing forward Larry Johnson at a locker nearby, to leave the premises while he got dressed. Voisin declined, and Mourning pressed the issue, rudely. Finally, Voisin, sounding like Bullet assistant Blair, said, 'Act like a pro, rookie!" The intervention of Johnson, who backed Voisin's right to be in the locker room, prevented what could've been an ugly scene. Under orders from the Hornets, Mourning later apologized to Voisin.
Laettner has had no such incidents with reporters, largely because he barely acknowledges their existence. In fact, that's precisely how he treats a great portion of the human race. His abrasive personality, no doubt, was one reason why teammates Chuck Person, Doug West and Micheal Williams have publicly accused him of being selfish on the court, and a lack of team chemistry was a factor in the firing of coach Jimmy Rodgers on Jan. 11.
But the good news for the Wolves is that Laettner is far too talented, too confident and too arrogant to be the Second Coming of fellow Dukie Ferry. Laettner can get his shot off in traffic (17.9 points per game), he can rebound (8.1), he's tough (34 minutes on average), and he's friends with Stephen King. What else could you want from a rookie? The best analysis of Laettner's game comes from Minnesota general manager Jack McCloskey: "He's going to become the player he already thinks he is."
There is very little of Laettner's arrogance in Gugliotta, who wears a Wally Cleaveresque look of earnestness both on and off the court. Gugliotta's biggest struggle, besides his penchant for eschewing the paint for long-range jumpers, has been coming to terms with the B-word. "I heard myself compared to Larry Bird once in a while when I was in college," says Gugliotta, "only then I was always 'the poor man's Larry Bird.' " The comparison without the qualifier has already been made by, among others, Knick coach Pat Riley and Jordan. "It's legit," said Jordan after Gugliotta scored 25 points and got 13 rebounds in a 107-99 loss to the Bulls on Dec. 17. "He's the closest thing to Bird that I've seen, and not just because he's white." Said Utah Jazz guard Jeff Malone after Gugliotta hung a 39-point, 15-rebound line on the Jazz in a 126-109 Bullet victory on Nov. 21, "Googs showed me he can shoot, pass, rebound, hit the open man and
run the floor. What else is there?" Well, he doesn't know Stephen King.
The Kings' Williams also belongs in the future All-Star class, though it's hard to say at what position—he's a 6'8" Swiss Army knife who has played every position this season. His most likely permanent spot will be small forward, but doubts about his touch remain: At week's end he was shooting .453 from the field. Still, he shows remarkable efficency, averaging 14.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists in just 25 minutes. Williams has guts, too. He has reversed a trend by wearing his socks at knee length, partly as homage to his idol, former San Antonio star George Gervin, and partly because he feels it helps him ward off shinsplints.