Stoudemire: early to draft, early to rise

NBA: The only high school player taken in the 2002 draft, Amare Stoudemire has wasted little time showing the league what he's capable of.

January 13, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PHOENIX - Everyone has a favorite Amare Stoudemire story these days.

Phoenix Suns coach Frank Johnson has his.

It happened when Stoudemire worked out for the Suns last year before the NBA draft. The Suns, picking ninth, had brought in a number of prospects and ran a drill to test their vertical leaps. Stoudemire jumped higher - much higher - than anyone else on the floor. Mouths opened in unison.

"This might have been his first workout," Johnson recalled recently. "He goes up with two hands. Sometimes when you go up with two hands you lose [height]. All I could think of was rebounds above the rim, rebounds that we always struggled to get. I said, `Maybe we could get lucky,' and we did."

Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown has his tale about seeing the 6-foot-10, 245-pound forward play for the first time.

It happened when Brown went with John Calipari last year to watch Stoudemire play in an Amateur Athletic Union basketball tournament in Philadelphia. Calipari, his former 76ers assistant, had just finished his first season as basketball coach at the University of Memphis.

Stoudemire, then a high school senior in Orlando, Fla., had orally committed to play at Memphis.

"The first trip he went down the court, I said to John, `He's never going to play for you. He's going to be the first pick in the draft,' " Brown said before a game here last week against the Suns. "We probably should have traded up to get him."

Those stories are stacking up as Stoudemire continues to be the most impressive rookie in the league aside from Houston's Yao Ming, the 7-5 Chinese center who was picked first in the 2002 draft. With Stoudemire, the only high school player taken, it's becoming hard to distinguish fact from fiction.

Did Stoudemire really score 38 points on Kevin Garnett, the All-NBA forward from the Minnesota Timberwolves, last month? Did he really knock out two of Paul Pierce's teeth when the Boston Celtics All-Star collided with Stoudemire?

"To the opposing team, it's shocking to see what he's doing," said veteran Suns guard Penny Hardaway. "Before they can recover or make a move, he's already dunked the ball. Not only his athleticism, his strength is what's getting him through. He's a lot stronger than people give him credit for."

`I knew I was ready'

At least seven NBA teams might feel now as if they missed on Stoudemire. No player who made the jump directly from high school to the NBA - not Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady or Garnett - has done so as dramatically as Stoudemire has with the Suns.

Stoudemire, 20, is not shocked at what he has accomplished.

"I knew I was ready," said Stoudemire, sitting in the team's spacious locker room at America West Arena. "I felt that I was mentally ready and physically ready. Maybe growing up the way I did, me growing up faster than the normal 16- or 17-year-old, allowed me to be mentally ready for the league."

Since moving into the starting lineup after veteran forward Tom Gugliotta was sidelined with a foot injury 10 games into the season, Stoudemire has gone from being a project for the Suns to a problem child for the rest of the league.

Stoudemire is averaging 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds for the season, fifth best among rookies in scoring and first in rebounding, but in the past month his game has gone through another growth spurt. He has averaged close to 15 points and 10 rebounds since becoming a starter. On Friday, he had 21 rebounds against the Memphis Grizzlies, setting a Suns' rookie record.

"I see a little growth since the season began, but a lot of things are natural," Stoudemire said. "I'm just getting comfortable out there, and that allows me to play."

It was his performance against Garnett in a Dec. 30 road loss that must have made those who had the opportunity to select Stoudemire start to second-guess themselves.

With what is now becoming a typical array of thundering one-handed dunks and various spin moves around the basket, Stoudemire made 16 of 24 shots. His 38 points were the most ever by an NBA rookie right out of high school. He also had 14 rebounds and blocked two shots.

"To me, it was just another game," Stoudemire said. "I didn't go out with a one-on-one thing in my mind. I'm just going out trying to win the game. It's just that it happened to be that I had a pretty good night."

Stoudemire has had a bunch of them so far this season, helping the Suns become one of the surprise teams in the league. Even more than Yao, Stoudemire was considered a rather large risk coming into the season.

Most shied away from Stoudemire after three of the top picks from 2001 - No. 1 choice Kwame Brown of the Washington Wizards, as well as Nos. 2 and 4 selections Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry of the Chicago Bulls - had problems adjusting to the NBA game as rookies out of high school.

Rising above past

But there were also concerns about Stoudemire's background.

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