Journeyman Baxter is still seeking home

Ex-Terp set to be released from prison today, will head to Italy to play for ninth pro team

College Basketball

October 11, 2006|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

Lonny Baxter did the wrong thing in the wrong place.

As a professional basketball player, he has yet to find himself with the right team at the right time.

Baxter is expected to be released today from a prison in Washington. He has been behind bars since Aug. 16, when he fired a .40-caliber Glock into the sky from his Range Rover while not far from the White House. Baxter was arrested hours before he was scheduled to leave the country to play for an Italian club, which his agent expects him to do by week's end.

Montepaschi Siena will be the ninth pro team that has had the rights to Baxter, a basketball vagabond before and after his four seasons at Maryland.

Baxter attended four schools in as many years before Maryland. In one 14-month span, he played for five pro teams, was taken in the 2004 expansion draft by a sixth and waived by a seventh. After some stability in Chicago, Baxter wasn't in Toronto, Houston or Charlotte long enough to sign a lease and spent one holiday season relocating from New Orleans to Greece.

It can be as hard to make it in Athens as it is in Atlanta. Baxter has also seen that the best young big men go directly from high school to the NBA, that 6-foot-8 power forwards need to be able to knock down a 15-foot jump shot and that not all opportunities are equal.

"It's not a matter of not being good enough to play in the NBA," said Mark Bartelstein, Baxter's agent. "A certain number are going to be stars in the league. Some have to keep banging on the door until you get through and establish yourself with the right team. We've just to get Lonny in the right situation."

Baxter is a solid 260 pounds, but the low-post game and power moves that made him a force in college have come up short against bigger bodies in the NBA. At Maryland, where he shared the ball with Steve Blake, Juan Dixon, Terence Morris and Chris Wilcox, unselfishness might have kept him from developing his outside game.

"There were times when I'm sure Lonny thought he should have gotten the ball more, but it never affected whether he was going to defend or rebound," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "Most 6-9 and 6-10 guys are told that their ticket to the NBA is the jump shot, but your ticket is whatever you can do. Lonny wasn't a flat-out cinch to make it. What he's done in the NBA shouldn't detract from what he did for Maryland."

Baxter is one of 10 players in the history of the NCAA tournament to repeat as a Most Outstanding Player in a regional, as he helped Maryland to its only Final Four appearances and its lone national title.

Players Baxter dominated along the way have established themselves in the NBA, underscoring that it's a game of inches, in his case the difference of not being a 7-footer.

Maryland got to the 2001 Final Four with a 14-point win over top-seeded Stanford. One of the big men Baxter abused that day was Jason Collins, who has been with the New Jersey Nets since and was a starter the past four seasons. A famous image of the 2002 NCAA final is Baxter rejecting Indiana's Jared Jeffries, who later would be one of the forwards in front of him during a brief stint with the Washington Wizards.

Jeffries is 6-11, and with greater range. Collins, 7-0, rarely leaves the block. Tyson Chandler, who had no college experience but a year in Chicago when Baxter got there in 2002, is 7-1.

"We were high on Lonny as a guy off the bench," said Ron Adams, who became a Bulls assistant before the 2003-04 season, during which Baxter was traded to the Toronto Raptors. "I spent time with him, developing his 15-foot jump shot."

That theme recurred in Washington, where Tom Young, a Wizards assistant who played for Maryland in the 1950s, saw Baxter make 50 percent of his field-goal attempts and knew that wasn't enough.

"Lonny didn't shoot the ball as well as he needed to," Young said. "You look at a guy in his position. A sub who's playing well is going to get 12, 13 minutes a game, but before you get there, you're thinking, `If I mess up, I'm going to be benched.' The pressure is there to make his shot. If he had stuck it at 55 percent, that would've certainly helped.

"Confidence becomes a factor. Of course, size has something to do with it. He probably had to go out a little further in the NBA to get off his shot."

Baxter's most productive games in the NBA, where he made more than $700,000 last season, came when he was on the trading block. Last Jan. 25, he scored 18 points for Houston against Charlotte. Two weeks later, the Rockets traded him to the Bobcats.

Baxter joined Panathinaikos, a EuroLeague power, in January 2006, when its established big men included Michael Batiste, a Pac-10 All-Star at Arizona State.

One of the Montepaschi Siena big men who has settled in during the preseason is Wade Helliwell, a 7-footer from Australia. The team in Serie A, a top league in Italy, is nonetheless relying on Baxter; last month it extended his contract through the 2007-08 season.

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