The NBA season has reached only the quarter pole, but Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo already has opened up a substantial lead in the race for Rookie of the Year.
Mutombo said: "The guys in the media didn't give me enough credit. To me, to look at who's willing to work hard, I think I'm by myself."
The Georgetown alumnus was the fourth player chosen in the June draft. Before him, the Charlotte Hornets picked UNLV forward Larry Johnson, the New Jersey Nets took Georgia Tech guard Kenny Anderson and the Sacramento Kings picked Syracuse forward Billy Owens, later trading him to the Golden State Warriors for guard Mitch Richmond.
Of the first four selections, Mutombo has made the most immediate impact, averaging 17.4 points, 14.3 rebounds and 2.94 blocks for the Nuggets, who already have won eight games, something that took them until Jan. 16 last season.
"Three teams screwed up by not taking him," said the Philadelphia 76ers' Charles Barkley.
A number of NBA scouts questioned Mutombo's offensive potential. But extensive one-on-one summer sessions with another former Georgetown center, Patrick Ewing, helped him make the transition to the pro game. The 7-foot-2 native of Zaire has added a jump hook and spin move.
"The future of our team is centered around Mutombo," said Nuggets coach Paul Westhead, who abandoned his run-and-shoot offense for a half-court game with Mutombo as the hub.
"He's still taking some bad shots," said Nets coach Bill Fitch, "but Mutombo already has enough of an offensive repertoire to score double figures every night. You can't defense him one-on-one in the box.
"Of the big prospects I auditioned, he had the best hands. The teams that passed him up either had centers or other severe problems. We had a center [Sam Bowie] with a big contract and couldn't move him."
The Nets, seeking a much-needed gate attraction, grabbed Anderson, who has New York roots and a flamboyant game honed on the schoolyards.
But Anderson, who missed all of training camp before signing a five- year, $14.5 million contract, has not wowed the critics with his shooting or play-making, and his minutes have diminished in recent games.
Riding the bench has not sat well with the guard, who was always in the spotlight at Georgia Tech before opting for the pros after his sophomore year.
"It's hard coming out of school as an All-American, playing 40 minutes, until I was tired," said Anderson, averaging 9.7 points and 4.3 assists while alternating with veteran Mookie Blaylock at the point.
"Now, I can't get in the groove. The coach and general manager [Willis Reed] said it's best for me to come in and learn. I'll take my lumps. I'm not worrying about playing bad or well right now.
"In my heart, I don't feel I've had an opportunity yet. This is all new to me. When you learn to ride a bike, you're going to fall the first time, but you keep getting back on and learning. But when I make a mistake now, I don't keep on playing."
Said Fitch: "Kenny thinks it's a matter of minutes. It's really a matter of time. Maturity time. Different games and different situations. He is still learning to play with the 24-second clock, the added contact and tuning his body to playing almost every night. It all takes time."
Passing the Buck: NBA snoops are looking for signs of discord in Milwaukee that forced general manager Del Harris to abandon his dual role as head coach suddenly last week, passing the baton to assistant Frank Hamblen. "There are no sub-plots," insists Bucks vice president John Steinmiller.
Adds Harris: "It's just too much to ask one man to do both jobs." Hamblen has had trouble handling just one. Under Hamblen, the Bucks have been whipped by the Nets and Pacers.
Paying the Price: After 10 months of rehabilitating his surgery-scarred left knee, point guard Mark Price has been credited with revitalizing the Cleveland Cavaliers with his floor leadership and shot-making.
"Never did I dream of playing this well, this fast," he said. "But I can honestly say I have never thought about my knee when I'm on the court. I haven't had the fear of re-injury other guys talk about. I had high expectations for myself, but I'll get a lot better before the year is over."