If he's not burned out, Mutombo could be top rookie

March 29, 1992|By Sam Smith | Sam Smith,Chicago Tribune

Denver's Dikembe Mutombo is not your usual NBA rookie, and not only because he is fluent in seven languages.

The No. 4 selection in last spring's draft studied linguistics and diplomacy at Georgetown, and when he first came to Denver before the draft, he quizzed Nuggets personnel on the city's hotly contested mayoral race.

The 7-foot-2, 250-pound center charmed and chopped up the NBA early. He was the only rookie to make the All-Star team,

chatted with Arsenio Hall and has a shoe and clothing line with Adidas.

But Mutombo is in the midst of a common rookie experience. The calendar says the season is still going on, but his body has run out of days.

"The wall," it's called around the NBA, and although Mutombo claims he "walked through it, now I'm on the other side," his performance of late belies his belief.

Mutombo, an early season shoo-in for Rookie of the Year, has averaged 11.8 points and 10.2 rebounds since the All-Star break and has grabbed at least 10 rebounds in only one of the team's past 11 games while scoring in double figures in four of them.

The belief shared by many NBA insiders is that coach Paul Westhead, under fire in Denver with the team stumbling, pushed Mutombo to the breaking point by forcing the ball into him, which accounted for his early statistical assault.

"He rode the guy all season and wore him out," said one Western Conference general manager. "But with that team, he didn't have much choice."

Still, even if it looks as if Charlotte's Larry Johnson may sneak past Mutombo for the Rookie of the Year award, Mutombo, averaging about 17 points and 12 rebounds on the season, has proved his worth.

"Why did people say I wouldn't score in the NBA [his predraft rap]?" said Mutombo. "I can grab offensive rebounds and put it back, if nothing else. So why did people snub me?"

Here's a look at the rest of the 1991 first-round picks:

* No. 1 -- Larry Johnson, Charlotte: Making a big push for Rookie of the Year by averaging 22.5 points and 10.5 rebounds since the All-Star break in leading his team to the league's third-best record over the past 20 games. Averaging 19 points and 11 rebounds for the season.

* No. 2 -- Kenny Anderson, New Jersey: Would be better off back in school if not for the $2.9 million average salary. Did average 9.3 points and five assists in 13 games as a starter but plays inconsistently.

* No. 3 -- Billy Owens, Golden State (after trade from Sacramento): Deserves strong Rookie of the Year consideration, even if he won't get it, for starting and contributing with a contending team while Johnson and Mutombo do so with teams going nowhere. Averaging 13.9 points and 7.6 rebounds and best among rookies with 53 percent shooting.

* No. 5 -- Steve Smith, Miami: Made Sherman Douglas expendable and was Indiana Pacers coach Bob Hill's pick as Rookie of the Year until a knee injury stopped him. He's been inconsistent upon his return as a 6-7 point guard. Averaging 12.7 points and 4.7 assists.

* No. 6 -- Doug Smith, Dallas: Slow developing on a team headed down that didn't play him much until the collapse. Slowed early by being overweight and missing training camp, but coming on with 25 points last Sunday against Seattle and looking like a small forward. Averaging 8.1 points and 4.7 rebounds.

* No. 7 -- Luc Longley, Minnesota: Another speed bump in the Timberwolves' drive for a legitimate center. Averaging 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds.

* No. 8 -- Mark Macon, Denver: Averaging 10.6 points with one of the league's worst and most inconsistent shots. But on this team, they let you keep throwing them up despite 36 percent shooting.

* No. 9 -- Stacey Augmon, Atlanta: "He's going to be a monster," says Pacers president Donnie Walsh. Averaging 12.5 points and five rebounds in showing Scottie Pippen potential.

* No. 10 -- Brian Williams, Orlando: Averaging 7.0 points and 4.5 rebounds after injury-plagued start, but hit the Chicago Bulls last weekend for 19 points and 10 rebounds and shows good inside strength.

* No. 11 -- Terrell Brandon, Cleveland: Hard to get time behind Mark Price, but they wouldn't give him up for Rolando Blackman. Averaging 8.0 points and 4.0 assists, but is sought by numerous teams in trade.

* No. 12 -- Greg Anthony, New York: Showed good defense early but has slumped with 36 percent shooting, not untypical for rookie guards. Averaging 5.5 points and 4.0 assists.

* No. 13 -- Dale Davis, Indiana: A tough rebounder who has earned playing time over La Salle Thompson. Averaging 5.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, but remains a rarity: a Pacer not looking to shoot and who might set a screen.

* No. 14 -- Rich King, Seattle: Has played fewer than 200 minutes, and with the SuperSonics set at center, he'll probably be on the market.

* No. 15 -- Anthony Avent, Milwaukee: Went to Europe. Cut there, where Mark Landsberger and Granville Waiters still star.

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