As leader, Nuggets' Anthony adds glint to polished game

March 10, 2004|By MIKE PRESTON

WASHINGTON - Denver Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik turned his team and franchise over to rookie forward Carmelo Anthony yesterday. It may be a move based on desperation as well as inspiration, but it tells you that Anthony is special.

Not too many NBA coaches give the keys to a 19-year-old. Not too many NBA coaches are allowed the time to tilt back the seat, kick up their feet and see where the journey ends.

But after a shoot-around yesterday at MCI Center, Bzdelik told Anthony it was time for him to take over a team that had lost eight of its past nine games. Forwards Marcus Camby and Ryan Bowen were the captains, but this team is now Anthony's.

"At first, I was a little shocked," said Anthony, who finished with 26 points, six rebounds and seven assists in the Nuggets' 117-87 rout of the Washington Wizards last night. "I know there are probably some guys who, in the back of their minds, are thinking, `Damn, this [near] 20-year-old is trying to lead this team.' I have no problem with the coach's decision if it makes us a better team. Everybody seems so cool so far."

That's because Anthony, an alum of Towson Catholic who played his recreation ball at Mount Royal, is so cool. He's got that great, warm, Magic Johnson smile and an all-around game of being able to handle the ball under pressure, post up bigger players and hit mid-range jump shots.

And though Cleveland Cavaliers rookie LeBron James has a more explosive game, sells more sneakers and jerseys and has the potential to become the league's most dominant player, the NBA Rookie of the Year should be Anthony.

Their numbers are pretty close. Before last night's game, Anthony was averaging 20.3 points and James was averaging 20.9. Anthony had a better field goal percentage (.426 to .415) and averaged more rebounds (6.2 compared with 5.8), but James was averaging 1.6 steals and 5.6 assists compared to 1.2 steals and 2.7 assists for Anthony.

But Anthony has the Nuggets three games over .500 and in playoff contention playing in the West, and Cleveland is eight games under .500 playing in the downright-sorry East.

Also, look at the supporting cast. James plays with power forward Carlos Boozer and center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a pretty nice trio. Boozer played in the rookie All-Star Game last year, and Ilgauskas has made an All-Star appearance.

Anthony has decent help with guard Andre Miller and center-forward Marcus Camby, but Camby is a whiner, and there are no All-Stars on this roster.

"I used to talk to LeBron a lot, but now that the season is down to the wire, I need to focus a lot more," Anthony said. "It [Rookie of the Year] would look good, but I've got a lot more to prove as a player in this league."

Anthony has a fan in Wizards coach Eddie Jordan.

"Melo has been up and down," Jordan said. "But he has probably been at a higher level consistently more than LeBron. Melo is more consistent, and the Nuggets rely on him a lot."

Consistency is an old goal. The Nuggets want him to carry the team. At the beginning of the season, Bzdelik, in his second year, was an early favorite to win Coach of the Year honors, but there is speculation that general manager Kiki Vandeweghe might want to go in a new direction if Denver doesn't make the playoffs.

That would be a mistake because the Nuggets have made good strides. A year ago, they won only 17 games.

"We've doubled that," Bzdelik said. "If you took a poll in Denver with anybody or with anybody across the nation, and said, `If after 65 games, you would be involved in a playoff race, and have a winning record,' anybody would have said, `Great,' whether it was 20 games over .500 or two games, or three games or one game."

There have also been rumors that Bzdelik and Anthony were having problems. A Denver newspaper recently reported there was a "rift" between the two. But it appears to be minor, if, indeed, a problem at all. It's nothing more than a young player having to adjust his game (play defense) for a demanding coach.

Anthony, who was benched briefly by Bzdelik earlier in the season, had to go through some growing pains.

"You just can't come into this league talking about your game," Anthony said. "You have to prove yourself, day in and day out, night in and night out. It takes awhile to earn respect from your teammates and the coaching staff."

Anthony believes he can handle his new role. It's not unfamiliar. A year ago, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim came to him at midseason and made a similar demand.

"Back then, I didn't have to say anything. I just went out there and played, and everybody else followed,' said Anthony, who averaged 22.2 points and 10 rebounds as a freshman in leading the Orangemen to the national championship. "I don't have a problem being more vocal here, but again, your game has to speak for itself first."

Counting on Anthony down the stretch seems risky. Most rookies hit the proverbial wall around the 35th game. But Anthony, the third overall pick in the draft, keeps getting better and stronger. In his first 35 games, he shot .392 from the field and averaged 18.1 points and 6.1 rebounds. In the next 24 games, he shot .467 and averaged 22.9 points and 6.6 rebounds.

What wall?

Apparently, the nightly grind of the NBA tour has had little effect. Part of it is because Anthony has changed his eating habits. No more fried chicken, french fries and cheeseburgers.

Well, almost.

But the only thing Anthony consumes full time is basketball. Last night, he had "20 something" hometown fans in attendance cheering for him at MCI Center. Asked whether he was going to visit nearby relatives, Anthony said, no, and that he was moving on to New Jersey. The Nuggets want to see how far he can take them.

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