Monroe's game for NBA challenge

October 21, 1991|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Evening Sun Staff

ATLANTA -- This is all so different from what Rodney Monroe is used to.

For the majority of his 23 years on the planet, basketball has been the focus of Monroe's life, from Hagerstown's St. Maria Goretti High School, to North Carolina State University to now, as a rookie with the Atlanta Hawks.

Except, before now, this game of catching, dribbling and shooting was just that: A game.

Now, there are tickets to leave, agents to hire, endorsements to pursue, and biweekly paychecks to cash. In other words, basketball has become a business.

"Right now, I'm enjoying everything as it comes," said Monroe before his first professional game, a preseason match with the Dallas Mavericks.

"I'm still playing basketball, and that's something I've been doing all my life. I'm getting paid to play, but I still love the game and I'm still playing for the love of it. I don't want to have to go out and get a job. Not yet at least."

That shouldn't happen, or at least not soon. But things will clearly be different for the shooting guard from now on.

For one thing, he is not the star. On this night, Monroe's locker is meekly nestled in a corner of the Hawks dressing room, between Rumeal Robinson, who led Michigan to a national championship, and Stacy Augmon, a key cog in Nevada-Las Vegas' consecutive Final Four appearances and national title.

Both Augmon and Robinson were first-round draft choices, and they are stars -- at least they command a large share of media attention. Monroe, however, despite winning last year's ACC Player of the Year award and the conference's scoring championship, was a second-round pick in this year's draft.

The fact that all 27 teams in the league, including the Washington Bullets, who took Louisville guard LaBradford Smith the first round, passed over him still rankles Monroe. The snub cost him stature and money, and he won't soon forget it.

"I would have loved to have had the pressure of being a first-round pick, even now," said Monroe. "I felt that I should have been a first-round pick. If that's added pressure, then that's added pressure that I wanted."

It doesn't take long to see both sides of the Monroe puzzle, once he steps out onto the floor, making his first appearance near the end of the first quarter to replace Robinson, whose pocket has been picked twice by Derek Harper.

On one hand, it's clear that Monroe, who is learning to play the point, is a more than capable offensive performer.

The form on his jump shot appears to be right out of a textbook, and he nails his first jumper about 30 seconds into the second quarter from about 17 feet away on the right wing, as well as a pretty baseline jumper that leads to a three-point play three minutes later.

But it also doesn't take long to see Monroe's deficiencies exposed, particularly on the defensive end.

Mavericks' guard Brad Davis, who played three seasons at Maryland, does not have Monroe's speed or shooting ability. But he does have 14 years of NBA experience, and he uses a fair bit of it on Monroe during the second quarter, picking him off on screens and hitting jumpers when Monroe tries to double-team down low.

Mike Iuzzolino, a 5-11 guard who is, at best, a long shot to make the Mavericks' 12-man roster, drives the length of the floor on Monroe and lays the ball in at the first-half buzzer.

But Monroe's worst lesson comes in the fourth quarter, when Hawks coach Bob Weiss elects to leave him in to guard Harper, one of the league's best point guards. Harper continually harasses Monroe on defense and draws a couple of fouls on him on the other end.

"I purposely switched Rodney on Derek in the fourth quarter," Weiss said. "I wanted Rodney to get a taste of that and he did. Derek repeatedly took him to the hole."

"Yeah, Derek beat me down the court a couple of times," said Monroe with a sheepish grin. "That was just me not picking my man up fast enough. By the time I did, he was even with me, or had a step. He's quick north to south."

Weiss said that Monroe, who hasn't played point guard since his high school days, is learning a new position at the highest level of the sport and, thus, suffering some growing pains.

"Rodney does very well at point guard in the passing game, but not as well when we're in sets," said Weiss. "He'll be all right. I'll just watch what I call when he's in the game."

The Hawks win the game, 131-117, but the score of an exhibition game is as meaningless as it gets, since a third of most training camp rosters are simply practice fodder, and the regulars are merely fine tuning their games for the regular season.

Monroe, who had 11 points, two assists, five rebounds, three turnovers and one blocked shot, takes this first night on the job in stride.

"It was kind of on-the-job training as I go along," said Monroe. "Hopefully, by playoff time, I'll be really good and ready to contribute."

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