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THE PICK OF PACK : Joe Wolf Is a Player in Clippers' Clothing

December 10, 1987|CHRIS BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Basketball Coach Dean Smith of North Carolina thinks the Clippers got a bargain in former Tar Heel forward Joe Wolf.

Wolf signed a reported $1.2-million, three-year contract with the Clippers last October.

Smith said he had advised Wolf to ask for a one-year contract because his value would rise dramatically after his first season in the National Basketball Assn.

It's too early to evaluate Wolf, but Smith just might have been right.

"I think we've had six NBA rookies of the year," Smith said of his North Carolina program. "I had no doubts about Joe.

"I bet all the teams that didn't draft him would be sorry. I've known him since he was 7 and I coached his brother. Joe is just a great competitor.

"His only weakness is guarding the man on the ball outside. That's Larry Bird's only weakness, too."

Wolf has made a bigger contribution to the Clippers than has Reggie Williams, their top pick in the NBA draft last June. Williams, a star at Georgetown, was the No. 4 pick overall. Wolf was the 13th.

The development of Wolf, a 6-foot 11-inch, 230-pound player from a suburb of Sheboygan, Wis., has been perhaps the most positive development for the Clippers, who have won half as many games in the first month of the season as they did all of last season.

The Clippers started winning when Wolf became a starter and have a 4-5 record in the nine games since. He has already made an impression around the NBA.

"I think Wolf's going to be a great player," said Laker forward James Worthy, who also played at North Carolina.

Said Atlanta Hawks Coach Mike Fratello: "I like Wolf a lot."

The Clippers touted Williams for rookie-of-the-year honors before the season. Maybe they should have pushed Wolf.

Wolf has been more consistent than Williams, who, despite flashes of greatness, has been erratic. And Wolf has displayed a work ethic previously foreign to most of his teammates.

Said Clipper Coach Gene Shue: "Reggie is going through a tough period. And Wolf has been more consistent than he has. Reggie's an open-court player who is used to running up and down the court. We'd like to run but we don't have the players who can do it.

"Wolf has made the most of his chances. What difference does it make if we drafted Reggie 4th and Joe 13th? It's the player who can produce.

"One of the problems we had is rebounding, and Joe Wolf helps us in that area. When Reggie was starting, we were getting killed on the boards. I expect Joe to develop into a good post-up player."

Williams got off to a promising start, starting four games, but has been in a slump since scoring a season-high 33 points in a 122-121 overtime loss at San Antonio Nov. 17. Williams was slow to recover after missing two games because of the flu, and, a starter since high school, has had trouble adjusting to a reserve role.

"I started out faster and (Wolf) started out slower and now he's begun to catch up," Williams said. "When I got sick and they put me on the bench it was a tough adjustment. I've never been on the bench. I've always been a starter.

"I'm going to come out of it. Players go into slumps every day. It's up to me to come out of it. Great players go into slumps. I'm human, too."

Wolf said he thinks Williams will come out of it soon. In the meantime, though, Wolf, who's averaging 10.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists, is making the most of his opportunity.

His shot selection is good and his shooting touch has been excellent, none of which surprises Smith.

"I think Joe is as close as there is to being a pure shooter," Smith said. "I've seen him go around the horn and make every shot. I think his shooting will surprise people. And he's a very good passer.

"He played three positions for us up front. He's 6-11 1/2 and getting stronger."

The Clippers drafted Wolf specifically because of his versatility, but it might have hurt him at first because they couldn't decide where to play him.

He appears most comfortable at small forward, his current position. He played power forward during the exhibition season, then was shifted when Michael Cage, last season's power forward, ended his holdout one game into the season.

Cage, the NBA's third-leading rebounder, likes the way Wolf goes to the boards.

"He makes my job easier," Cage said. "I didn't do the things this early in my career that he's doing now. I like his game."

Clipper guard Mike Woodson said: "I think he'll be a great player in this league eventually. He played in a great program at North Carolina. All the guys who have come into the league from there have played well."

Wolf, who will turn 23 a week from today, is the only rookie in the Clippers' starting lineup but it appears that success hasn't gone to his head.

He comes across as the most down-to-earth player on the team. He's the only Clipper starter, for instance, who doesn't own a Mercedes.

"People in Wisconsin have good old-fashioned values," Wolf said.

One of his is saving his money.

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