At midseason, Patrick Ewing looked like a runaway winner of NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
As the 82-game regular season comes to a close this weekend, however, the result of balloting among NBA writers and broadcasters no longer is clear-cut. The picture clouded when the powerful 7-foot center for the New York Knicks played only 14 games in the second half of the season and 50 overall because of a knee injury that required surgery.
Ewing's statistics are impressive, 20 points and nine rebounds per game, and he got nearly unanimous rave reviews whereever he played.
"He's 7-foot and 230 pounds with a feathered shot," Boston Coach K.C. Jones said. "He's definitely the center of the future."
"He's A-1; that's why he's going to be a star for years and years tocome," said Ewing's coach, Hubie Brown. But when asked if he will get Rookie of the Year honors, Brown said, "It's difficult to miss over one-third of the season and come out No. 1."
Ewing's stiffest challengers are Karl Malone of Utah, Xavier McDaniel of Seattle, Manute Bol of Washington, Charles Oakley of Chicago, Benoit Benjamin of the Clippers and Wayman Tisdale of Indiana.
Only Malone among the rookies comes from a winning team; the Jazz were .500 going into the final days.
That prompted Jazz Coach Frank Layden to make a case for Malone, a 6-9 forward who was the 13th draft pick. "As far as I can see, he's making the biggest contribution on the winningest team."
McDaniel and Malone have been the most consistent, starting all season and averaging 17 points and nearly 15 points, respectively. Both get about nine rebounds per game.
"I think he's running head to head with Patrick," Seattle Coach Bernie Bickerstaff said of McDaniel, a 6-8 forward. "I may be a little biased, but in terms of what Xavier has done for the Seattle SuperSonics, he's just been great."
The 7-6 Bol has been a phenomenon and a media favorite while leading the league in blocked shots, but the Sudanese giant is one-dimensional, with far more blocked shots than points.
Oakley and Benjamin started slowly but came on strong in the second half.
Benjamin, a 7-0 center, looked like a wasted pick at midseason, but has raised his average to 11 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, up from 5.8 points and 5.5 rebounds at Christmas.
"Kids come in with a false idea, or ignorance, of what the NBA is," Clippers assistant coach Don Casey said. "Ben was young. Early on, he had to go against Jack Sikma and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and they did a number on him. I think he was scared and in awe. He looked bad."
Clipper Coach Don Chaney had Benjamin look at films of himself. "He saw himself loafing and it embarrassed him," Casey said. "That triggered something. His work ethic in games and at practice has definitely improved."
Given a chance to play because of injuries on the Bulls, Oakley has been awesome at times.
In his first 40 games, the 6-8, 225-pound forward averaged 13.0 minutes, 4.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and shot 44.3% from the field. In his next 30, he averaged 34.1 minutes, 16.3 points, 12.9 rebounds and shot 54.7%.
"If he had played at Kentucky or Ohio State, nobody would be saying, 'Who's Charles Oakley?' " said Dave Robbins, his coach at Virginia Union College.
"We knew he was a terminator," Chicago coach Stan Albeck said of Oakley intimidating presence near the basket. "He's Rambo, Commando and Terminator all in one."
Tisdale, the No. 2 pick in the 1985 draft behind Ewing, looks impressive for a week and lost for two.
"I realize this is a year of adjustment, and it's not going to get me down," said Tisdale, a 6-9 forward averaging 14.8 points and 7.2 rebounds. "I know I can play in this league."