Nets' Coleman shows that he belongs with the recent great stars of the NBA

January 13, 1991|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- Bill Fitch, the New Jersey Nets' coach, was there blowing the whistle and diagramming the plays when some of the greatest players of the generation came along.

The list of luminaries doesn't include Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, though he did average in double figures in points and rebounds his first season under Fitch at University of North Dakota.

It does include Larry Bird, Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon, all of whom Fitch coached in the National Basketball Association when they were rookies.

Pretty good rookies, too, all of whom averaged at least 20 points their first season. Bird and Sampson were named Rookies of the Year, and Olajuwon was nosed out by Michael Jordan.

Now, Fitch is watching another prodigy on the way to becoming a star, and he's placing Derrick Coleman of the New Jersey Nets in their elite company.

"So far," Fitch said, "he's had as big an impact as Bird, Olajuwon and Sampson. He doesn't have the same cast to play with, but if you look at his stats and compare it with those other guys, I'd say he's held up well."

Coleman, the No. 1 pick in last summer's collegiate draft, is averaging 15.7 points; 10.2 rebounds, ninth in the league; and 1.6 blocks.

"I feel like he's a man-child out there," said Jackson. "They said he was a man among boys in last year's draft, and he's showing it. He posts up well and is a rebounding force."

Coleman has shown that in spectacular fashion, posting a season league-high 23-rebound effort in a game in which he also had 28 points. Making the feat even more impressive was that it occurred against Philadelphia and Charles Barkley and Rick Mahorn, two of the toughest players in the league.

"I was proud of that game," Coleman said. "Mahorn and Barkley throw you around, and you have to dust yourself off and go down to the other end. But eventually my turn will come to throw someone down."

Probably sooner rather than later, because Coleman, a draft question mark because of brushes with campus security at Syracuse and whispers of a questionable character, has quickly drawn rave reviews around the league.

"I think he can be the next Barkley," New York Knicks forward Charles Oakley said. "He's the type of guy who can carry a team."

Coleman, who's easily enjoying the best season among the 1990 rookie crop, isn't surprised at his success.

"I am the franchise," Coleman said recently. "If you want somebody who is versatile and can play any position on the court, I'm your man. I don't think there's a player my size who can handle me on the perimeter.

"I don't want to be in the top five," Coleman said. "I want to be second to none. I want to be in the category with Jordan, Magic [Johnson], Larry, Patrick [Ewing] and guys like that."

While that seems like a stretch, there were doubts Coleman would make such an early impact in the NBA despite impressive athletic talent.

He's 6 feet 10 inches and 230 pounds, yet he handles the ball well and can pass effectively.

Many people viewed Coleman as the second coming of Marvin Barnes, the talented but troubled Providence College power forward who bounced around pro basketball for a half-dozen years on phenomenal talent and questionable behavior.

At Syracuse, Coleman plea-bargained down to disorderly conduct after a campus fight, and he had regular problems with coach Jim Boeheim.

But Coleman, raised in Alabama and Detroit, insists his collegiate peccadillos were exaggerated.

"I'm not the only player who ever went to college and had a problem," he said, insisting the publicity about him "was way out of proportion and only done to sell newspapers."

"I've always been taught that if you don't agree," Coleman said, "you speak up. That's me."

Nevertheless, Coleman's history made the Nets, with the No. 1 pick, nervous, especially with an investment in him that would wind up at $15 million over five years after a training-camp holdout.

Rumors were the Pistons were making a bid to bring Coleman back to Detroit, where he was befriended by former Pistons great Dave Bing, but the Nets always denied they would trade Coleman. They did, however, hesitate on draft day, waiting almost until the end of their five-minute selection time to make the pick and later suggesting that if they hadn't traded for Reggie Theus, they might have picked long-range shooter Dennis Scott.

But they didn't, and nobody's complaining.

"Derrick has a presence," Theus said. "His arrogance, his belief that he's a hell of a player, is obvious to teammates and opponents. We know it, and they know it."

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