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David
10-30-2002, 06:25 PM
Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Young talent who can determine a franchise's fate

By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

There are two states, Riles says. Winning and misery.

I propose a third.

Uncertainty.

Training camps and preseason produce that state. After all of the drafts, and trades, and free agent signings, you pretty much have what you have when camps begin. But what do you have? Is your team what you thought, or is there a hole the size of Fat Joe's pants in there? Have the old guys stayed in shape? Have the young turks gotten in shape? Who has a jumper that he didn't have three months ago? Who's suddenly a step slow?

If one guy blossoms, what should be a rebuilding season can turn into a pleasant, Piston-like surprise. If another guy comes up way short or gets injured, what was a season of possibility can quickly immolate into Cavalier-type despair. And the truth is, in the preseason, you just don't know.

In that spirit, here are 10 young veterans that could have a big impact on their teams' immediate, and long-term, futures. Some are former lottery picks, some are free agents. But all are in a position to really help their squads if they come on -- or set the program back years if they flame out.


Kwame Brown, Wizards. You take in a Wizards' exhibition game to see if Larry Hughes has any chance at the point (still not convinced, by the way), and Kwame Brown breaks out! Here he is, swooping in for an offensive rebound. There he goes, providing weakside help in one step and smothering a baseline drive. Is it real? Is what we've seen so far from last year's No. 1 pick in the preseason a mirage, or the start of something big? If the 6-foot-11 forward plays as he did in his disastrous rookie season, Michael Jordan will have some 'splaining to do. But if Brown is really going to be a double-figure scorer and rebounder, everything changes for the Wizards. Everything.

"He's growing up," Doug Collins said. "I think the best thing that's happened to him is having Jared Jeffries on the team. Jared and he have really lifted each other's play. With no really power centers in the East, with that kind of activity and quickness and all, if we'll take care of the defensive backboard, that's a tough matchup, because they're both so quick. You look out there and you've got Kwame, who's 20, Jared, who's 20, Etan (Thomas), who's 23, Juan (Dixon), who's 23, Larry Hughes, who's probably 23, and Jerry Stackhouse, who's 27. That is the core and the future of this organization."

"I think it's good for me, especially with Brendan (Haywood) and Etan, to have other guys there to grow with," Brown said. "I'm feeding off Jared, I'm feeding off Juan. We're just growing and maturing together. We're all trying to learn the game."


Greg Buckner, Sixers. He was Philly's No. 1 target in free agency, and the Sixers didn't waste time enticing the fourth-year guard away from Dallas. He'll be put on the Kidds and Allens of the Eastern Conference and he's right out of Central Casting for Larry Brown: great defense, questionable shot. He could start or come off the bench. Plus, he's tough and part of what should be a deep rotation.

"We didn't have a team last year," LB said. "We were asking young kids to replace Eric (Snow) and Aaron (McKie) and Allen (Iverson) ... our bench was young and inexperienced and immature. I just feel like we can be pretty darn good. You're never going to replace Dikembe (Mutombo), and Matt (Harpring) was terrific for us. But we added Buckner, Monty Williams, (Keith) Van Horn, (Todd) MacCulloch. We added a lot of tough role players, but guys that are better than that. And with Aaron, Eric, Allen and Derrick (Coleman), we still have our core. But it depends on Buckner, and Monty, with the injuries."

Dan Gadzuric, Bucks. The UCLA rookie has impressed with his ability to run the floor, and he's done nice work on the boards in preseason. The Bucks would like to bring him along slowly, but he may have to play quickly if Milwaukee, as the whisperers maintain, moves Ervin Johnson ($3.99 million this season) to lower its team salary and potential luxury tax payments after matching Dallas's offer sheet for Michael Redd. That would leave Gadzuric, rookie Marcus Haislip and Joel Przybilla to man the Bucks in the middle -- and address the team's chief deficiency. "Last year, our problem was rebounding," Ray Allen said. "We wouldn't rebound. And that gave them easy shots, and then you get discouraged."

Gordan Giricek, Grizzlies. No question Drew Gooden has gotten off to a monster start in the preseason, but Giricek may play a big role in Memphis's future, too. The 26-year-old Croatian rookie has battled Michael Dickerson for the starting two spot and he has the upper hand. Logo picked up Giricek two days after the draft from San Antonio, which couldn't offer him any real playing time behind Steve Smith and Manu Ginobili. No hard feelings, says Giricek, who just wanted an opportunity.

"I know that conditions there (in San Antonio) will be not so good," Giricek said. "So then I (am sent) to Memphis and I know that Jerry West is making the team, and I know what he did for Los Angeles Lakers. And I saw the roster. I see what kind of players he has here. CSK (his old team in Moscow) offered me two years, and I thought if I signed for two years, I'd be 28 and nobody would take me anymore. Especially guard. Big guy, different situation. So I wanted to come here and see if I could play."

Sid Lowe didn't know a lot about Giricek when Logo sent a 2004 second-rounder to the Spurs for his rights, but Lowe likes what he's seen so far. "I didn't know he had the basketball smarts," Lowe said. "He knows how to find open areas. He reads situations. He's a good passer. He can put the ball on the floor. He's a good young player. He's going to help us a lot ... I can let him handle the ball, like when they trap Jason (Williams)."

Gooden, who's much too young to be able to make this comparison, likens Giricek to Sarunas Marciulionis. When I asked Giricek whose game his was like, he said, "Like me. I don't want to be compared to no one. It's nice to be compared, but I want to build my own way."

I like that.


Al Harrington, Pacers. It stuns me that Baby Al is already entering his fifth NBA season. But Harrington is still just 23 and still looking for a full breakout season. He was well on his way to that last year (13.1 points, 6.3 rebounds) when a torn ACL ended his season after 44 games. The Pacers need him to regain the form that made him increasingly hard to handle on the box -- and made them cough up $23 million last season over four years to keep him from free agency -- but more importantly, they need him to once again able to lock up threes at the other end. In Indiana's perfect world, Harrington would be spelled by Ron Artest, who's even more of a handful defensively, and the Pacers could just pound on folks. But Harrington has to get the rust off his game first.

Mehmet Okur, Pistons. The Turkish Bath (6-11, 250) throws his body around, but he has a deft touch on the block. He played well for Detroit in the summer league, wowing Rick Carlisle, and he's picked up where he left off in camp. The Pistons are quite comfortable with the 23-year-old banging underneath with Corliss Williamson off their bench, but Okur may have to log bigger minutes if starter Zeljko Rebraca continues to be foul-prone. Detroit needs one of the imported bigs to play big.


Vladimir Radmanovic, Sonics. He inherits Vin Baker's power forward spot, but Vlad plays a different style. He's got sick range, but he can also put it on the floor and rise up over you. The Sonics couldn't wait to get him on the floor with Rashard Lewis and Desmond Mason, the trio that Seattle has tapped as its core group of the future. They expect to be able to get out on the floor and run, and GP has already given Radmonovic his personal stamp of approval.

But Radmanovic can be stubborn, as evidenced by his tournament-long feud with his own coach, Svetlislav Pesic, during the World Championships. Pesic was already not feeling the NBA guys on his Yugoslavia team when he jumped Vladdy for shooting halfcourt shots during practice. Pesic told him to practice more on his game, not trick shots. At which point Radmonovic went right back to his midcourt heaves, saying what's the point, when you don't play me? And Pesic kept Rad's butt soldered to the bench for the last four games of the tournament.


Vladimir Stepania, Heat. It's unfair to ask anyone this side of El Segundo, Calif., to take up the slack for Alonzo Mourning, but somebody has to play center, and the 7-1 Stepania, whom Miami picked up last season after inconsistent stints with Seattle and New Jersey, may get the nod. He's hit the boards hard in the preseason, and he's Riles's best bet to go in the hole, because Riley would rather keep Brian Grant at power forward. That would leave Stepania and Sean Marks at center. "He's a very long, good, defensive rebounder," Riles says of Stepania. "He's has a tremendous desire to rebound the ball at both ends of the court. He needs a lot of refinement on what he does after he rebounds the ball and in his offensive game. We're trying to get him to do two things: defense and rebounding the basketball. I think that if he were to play 30 minutes per game -- and I'm not saying if he will or not -- but if he were to play that much the guy could average 10, 15 rebounds. He's that good."


Shammond Williams, Celtics. He's the starter at point guard, taking over for Kenny Anderson. It's a big season for the fourth-year player, who was supposed to be Gary Payton's heir apparent in Seattle. It didn't work out that way; Williams was beaten out by Earl Watson down the stretch last season and the bloom was off the rose. In Boston, he has to learn what Anderson and other points in Beantown find hard to fathom: No one wants them to bring the ball up or initiate the offense. That's Antoine Walker's job description. The point guard in Boston is supposed to run the floor and fill lanes, or come off screens ready to shoot, and Williams definitely has long-distance range (he's a career 39 percent from three, though just 41 percent from the floor overall). Williams's assist-turnover ratio is 2 to 1, which isn't great for a point, but again, Boston point guards don't rack up a lot of assists. Defensively, Williams has to unlearn the trapping style Nate McMillan employed in Seattle for the help concepts favored by assistant Dick Harter in the Celtics' system.




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DTL
10-31-2002, 12:42 AM
Got to say, after tonight's game, Giricek certainly looks like he's going to give the Grizzlies franchise a big boost this year.