The Kids are all right NBA: Led by some who are just out of high school and others who stayed all four years in college, the league probably has the best group of under-22 players it has ever had.

January 16, 1998|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

The center of attention in a cramped locker room after a preseason win over the Washington Wizards at George Mason University, San Antonio Spurs rookie Tim Duncan was asked why he remained in college for four years.

"Everybody has his reasons," responded Duncan, the first pick of the 1997 draft. "It's an individual decision. I decided to stay."

Nearly a month later in Philadelphia, Kobe Bryant was asked why he decided to forgo college and enter the NBA draft right out of high school.

"I felt I was ready," Bryant, a guard with the Los Angeles Lakers, said confidently. "The difference in the NBA is that you have to step up your game, continue to improve. That's on any level that you play on."

Duncan, New Jersey Nets forward Keith Van Horn and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Brevin Knight are solid examples of players whose immediate success in the NBA can be attributed to four years of college.

Bryant and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Garnett are two players who have proven that -- if blessed with talent and a strong work ethic -- a player can skip college and flourish in the NBA.

Add to that mix the names of Minnesota second-year guard Stephon Marbury and second-year forwards Antoine Walker of the Boston Celtics and Shareef Abdur-Rahim of the Vancouver Grizzlies, and you probably have the best group of 22-and-under players in league history.

"You look at some of these young guys, including Steph and Kevin, and they can be as good as they want," said Minnesota forward Tom Gugliotta, a teammate of Marbury and Garnett. "I wouldn't put any limit on them."

Future is now

During the preseason, Houston Rockets forward Charles Barkley suggested that Spurs center David Robinson needed a tougher power forward by his side -- a dig at Duncan. After Barkley witnessed Duncan effortlessly score 17 points and grab 17 rebounds, he was forced to eat his words.

"I've seen the future, and he wears a No. 21 Spurs jersey," said Barkley. "He is quite impressive."

Impressive enough to help the Spurs, who did not make the playoffs last season, compete with the Utah Jazz for the best record in the Midwest Division. Barkley may have been deceived by Duncan's quiet demeanor, but the 21-year-old rookie has been tough enough to rank fourth in the league in rebounding (11.6).

Duncan is also averaging 17.4 points, ranks second in field-goal percentage (.572) and seventh in blocks (2.41). Duncan, 7 feet, 248 pounds, the consensus Player of the Year in college basketball after his senior season at Wake Forest, has won the November and December NBA Rookie of the Month awards.

"Tim is really maturing as a player," said Robinson, whose injury for most of last season was the main reason the Spurs wound up with the top pick in the draft. "I think he realizes how big he is, and what he can do with it. Once he learns how to use his strength and improve his balance, he will be even better."

And yet, for all of his early success, there are those who feel Duncan is the second best rookie in the league. Duncan was the most dominant rookie early, but Van Horn was sidelined for five weeks with a injured ankle and his debut might make the Rookie of the Year award a two-player race.

He scored 11 in his debut on Dec. 5, and increased his scoring in each of the next four games. Van Horn later scored a career-high 32 against the Wizards on Dec. 29.

Van Horn is a 6-10 forward who can beat you a lot of different ways. He has the ability to slash to the basket, score in the post or stray out beyond the three-point line, where he has hit 27 three-pointers in his first 19 games.

"His confidence and his maturity, at 22, are far and above that of any rookie I've ever seen," said New Jersey teammate Kendall Gill. "I don't know how good Duncan is, but Keith has got to be Rookie of the Year. I don't think Tim Duncan can do the things he does."

Said an impressed Chris Webber, after Van Horn scored 23 in just his third game: "I love his game. I've said it about Duncan, and I'll say it about him. He's a good shooter, and he's very smart. What I like most about him is his toughness."

Almost overlooked among the rookies is Knight, who became the Cleveland starter when Bob Sura was injured early in the season. Knight, 5-10, is first in the league in steals (2.64) and ninth in assists (8.1).

Despite his rookie status, it's not uncommon to see Knight -- who nearly directed a team of collegians to victory over the Dream Team before the 1996 Olympics -- barking orders to teammates as he steps up to lead a team that starts three rookies.

"[Knight] shows leadership and gives the team direction," said Cleveland coach Mike Fratello. "He has a natural feel for the '1' position."

'Skills to take over'

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