Haywood's All-Star Weekend not busy

Washington rookie in today's Challenge

Pro Basketball

February 09, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - The NBA's All-Star Weekend and, particularly, its Saturday skills competition, is a celebration of creativity and versatility.

For instance, Milwaukee guard Ray Allen is participating in tonight's three-point shootout and tomorrow's All-Star Game, while Houston's Steve Francis will go for the title of best slam-dunker tonight and will start for the Western Conference tomorrow night.

That's all well and good, but Washington rookie center Brendan Haywood is here to do one thing and one thing only at First Union Center: play in this afternoon's Rookie Challenge game, pitting the league's top rookies against a team of second-year players.

"I've never been a leaper, so I would embarrass myself in the dunk contest," said Haywood yesterday with a laugh. "I'd try to get in that four-on-four hoop-it-up thing. I would embarrass myself in the three-point contest, too. I'd be air-balling. I'd want no part of that."

Luckily for Haywood, there's a place in the Rookie Challenge game for a 7-footer with solid defensive skills, though last year's contest in Washington disintegrated into a fast-break dunk fest, won by the sophomores, 121-113.

Haywood is the low scorer among the nine rookies selected for the game, but he is second in rebounding among all NBA first-year players, trailing only Memphis' Pau Gasol, and is the fourth-leading rookie shot-blocker.

"I said the other day that Brendan has all the qualities to be the kind of defensive player that Dikembe Mutombo is, and that's the greatest compliment that I can give him," said Washington coach Doug Collins. "He doesn't go for pump fakes. He's got exceptionally long arms. He's got good timing and he can move his feet. He's got every ingredient that a big man needs to be a shot-blocker like that. I really believe that he has a chance to be a premier shot-blocker in this league."

If Haywood ever were to attempt a run at the slam-dunk title, he could do worse than to emulate Francis, the former Maryland star and consensus favorite to win this year's competition, after finishing as a runner-up to Toronto's Vince Carter two years ago.

At 6-3, Francis is the shortest and second oldest of the four competitors, who include Seattle's Desmond Mason, last year's title winner in Washington, Golden State's Jason Richardson and Sacramento's Gerald Wallace.

"The key is to out-dunk those younger guys," Francis said. "I just have to be creative. The shortest guy has to be creative and come up with something original. I think that will be helpful."

Francis' presence lends star power to a contest that has slowly but surely lost luster over the years, as one big name after another has begged out, citing risk of injury.

The three-point shootout has taken over the dunk contest's place as a marquee event and will feature such NBA heavyweights as Allen, the reigning champion; Mike Miller, last year's Rookie of the Year; San Antonio's Steve Smith, who leads the league in three-point shooting percentage; and Boston swingman Paul Pierce.

The league has replaced the 2-ball competition with a hoop-it-up three-on-three game, pitting current and former NBA players, WNBA competitors and celebrities from Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Sacramento, as well a team of international competitors.

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