Tom Gugliotta of the Washington Bullets was escorted into the low post at a recent practice session; there he continued a dialogue with assistant coach Bill Blair about acting like a real NBA player instead of a—ugh!—rookie.
"When you get the ball, you've got to turn and take it right to the hole," said Blair, waving his hands. "If you don't force your way in there like you mean it, go up hard, then grunt and groan like you've been killed, the refs are just going to say, 'Shoot, there's another one of them damn rookies.' Now, see, you catch and kind of turn and dribble away from the basket, and say [here Blair lapsed into a wimpy, singsongy voice], 'Oh, hi, I'm Tom Gugliotta from N.C. State.' You ain't going to get nowhere talkin' like that! You'll be just some damn rookie."
In point of fact, the Bullets' prize first-year forward has been much more than some damn rookie. And he has plenty of company among the 56 players who make up the NBA's class of 1992-93. In a league that is now Magic-less and Bird-less, this season's rookie crop has been the most-talked-about subject nationwide—the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks (for completely different reasons) notwithstanding. "The last few rookie classes, to be honest, haven't contributed much," says Seattle Super Sonic general manager Bob Whitsitt. "But several members of this year's class have a chance to be impact players as rookies and for a long time beyond."
These rookies are a fascinating collection. Some have colorful nicknames, like Fonz (LaPhonso Ellis of the Denver Nuggets), Spoon (Clarence Weatherspoon of the Philadelphia 76ers), Sweet Pea (Lloyd Daniels of the San Antonio Spurs), Wookie (Sean Rooks of the Mavs), Zo (Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets) and, of course, the aforementioned Googs. There are rookies with Serbian names (Radisav Curcic of Dallas), Dickensian names (Anthony Avent of the Milwaukee Bucks), show-biz names (Tony Bennett of the Hornets) and Oxbridge names (Dexter Cambridge of the Mavs). The Suns' Oliver Miller looks like he's too fat to be an NBA player, and the Indiana Pacers' Malik Sealy seems to be too skinny, yet both appear to be keepers. Daniels, a recovering drug abuser, is playing with a bullet in one of his shoulders, and Mourning is playing with a chip on each of his. The Minnesota Timberwolves' Christian Laettner is attracting groups of shrieking teenyboppers, while Mourning has
already launched a locker room tirade towards a female reporter.
You want human interest? Just look at Dallas. Free-agent rookie Walter Bonds gives haircuts free of charge to his teammates; Rooks, a second-round pick who is doing a fine job at center, developed his toughness by helping his parents train animals (including alligators) for movies; and another free agent, Cambridge, who is working his way back into condition after breaking his right leg, used to hunt sharks in his native Bahamas.
There are even two prodigal sons in the class, fourth pick Jim Jackson of the Mavericks and 17th pick Doug Christie of the Sonics. Both are back at their alma maters (Jackson at Ohio State, Christie at Pepperdine) taking courses toward their degrees while their agents try to hack out contract agreements.
Not since 1984, when the draft produced monster talents Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Sam Perkins and Alvin Robertson, have so many young players caught on so quickly. And just as in the 1984-85 season, when Jordan leaped onto the scene with the best rookie stats (28.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 5.9 assists) in 15 years, one shining newcomer has reduced each of his classmates to the status of participants in a race to determine who's No. 2. "Rookie runner-up," muses Gugliotta. "I don't think they give an award for that, do they?"
Barring something very unusual—"Like maybe a bomb or something," says New York Knick rookie Hubert Davis—the Orlando Magic's Shaquille O'Neal will be the NBA Rookie of the Year. Outstanding classmates like Mourning, Laettner and Gugliotta don't have a chance. Bill Cartwright of the Chicago Bulls knows how they feel. In 1979-80, Cartwright, then a Knick, averaged 21.7 points and 8.9 rebounds in an eye-opening rookie season, yet he collected nary a vote for Rookie of the Year. That's because Bird got 63 of 66 votes and Magic received the other three.
One way to judge the quality of a draft is by the success—or lack thereof—of its No. 2 pick. Some mediocre drafts have yielded ho-hum second picks like Steve Stipanovich (behind Ralph Sampson in '83), Wayman Tisdale (Patrick Ewing in '85), Armon Gilliam (David Robinson in '87) and Danny Ferry (Pervis Ellison in '89). But this season's No. 2 is big bad Zo, a sure No. 1 in most years and a possible All-Star next month in Salt Lake City. Twelfth pick Harold Miner of the Miami Heat looked like he might be a big-time bust, having struggled to find his niche on a team replete with midsized players like himself. But over the last seven games through Sunday, Miner averaged 17.4 points and seemed to be coming on.
There is no single reason why this rookie class has been so spectacular. To begin with, they are getting the chance. Seven of the 11 lottery picks became instant starters, and one of the ones who isn't starting is Jackson, who would certainly be the woeful Mavs' mainstay at off-guard were he not in the classroom. Veteran NBA coaches like Don Nelson of the Golden State Warriors and Wes Unseld of the Bullets are known for being wary of rookies, yet Nelson had guard Latrell Sprewell in the starting lineup on opening night, and Unseld has deployed only one player for more minutes than Gugliotta.