Kukoc shows he's not out of his league

January 07, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

He was an international star and a top-notch Olympian, talents that led the Chicago Bulls to pursue him for the better part of three years. But even after Toni Kukoc finally felt he was ready to play in the NBA, he had no idea how it all would turn out.

"I'm just not sure yet," Kukoc said just prior to the season, when asked whether he could be as successful in the United States as he was in Europe. "Things have changed for me. And I'm just a rookie."

No, Kukoc has yet to develop into the megastar he was over the past two seasons in Italy, where his dazzling play had everyone comparing him to Magic Johnson. But the Croatian has played well enough to make a major contribution to the Bulls, who visit the Washington Bullets tonight at USAir Arena.

Playing mostly at small forward, and some at guard, the 6-foot-11 Kukoc is averaging 13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists. Those numbers don't quite measure up to the 18.0 points, 7.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds that Johnson averaged in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Lakers, but they are enough to help the Bulls to a 19-10 record and a second-place standing in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference.

"Toni's very skilled," said John Paxson, the injured Bulls guard. "People will enjoy watching him play. I think you'll see him show a lot of savvy and he really knows how to play the game."

His game is enjoyable to watch,whether he's gliding down the lane, hitting a clutch three-pointer or throwing a behind-the-back, no-look pass to a teammate. The flashiness and confidence is reminiscent of the late Drazen Petrovic -- Kukoc's former teammate on the Croatian Olympic team that won a silver medal in the 1992 Games.

"I think I have the ability to show something this season," Kukoc said. "I like to pass and I can be a good scorer. From game to game I'm going to play better."

Kukoc turned professional when he was 17 and over the years developed into the best player in Europe, with kids wearing his No. 7 jersey. Chicago used its second-round pick in 1990 to draft Kukoc, but at the time the 25-year-old didn't feel he was ready to play in the NBA.

Playing the past two years for the Benetton Treviso team in Italy, Kukoc averaged 19.9 points and hit 42 percent of his three-point attempts. He's shooting 28.3 percent from three-point range this season, it being 3 feet, 2 inches farther away from the basket than in Europe.

His decision to play in the NBA came after teammate Scottie Pippen -- upset that the Bulls were courting Kukoc and not sweetening his contract -- put a defensive lock on Kukoc in the Olympics, limiting his future teammate to 2-for-11 shooting and seven turnovers. Afterward Pippen suggested that Kukoc "wasn't all I expected him to be." Kukoc, yearning for his game to grow, decided he'd make the move to the NBA.

He signed an eight-year, $17.6 million contract, and looked forward to playing with Michael Jordan. But that changed shortly before the start of the season when Jordan shocked the sports world and announced his retirement.

"I looked forward a lot," Kukoc said, when asked if he wanted to play alongside Jordan. "I was disappointed I didn't play with him. But as for the rest, I just wanted to play in the NBA."

And, so far, Kukoc has proved a nice fit with the Bulls.

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