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It's a Bumper Year, but Not a Banner Year, for Rookies in NBA

January 17, 1988|BILL BARNARD | Associated Press

The NBA's 1987-88 rookie crop, although lacking players of superstar caliber, is shaping up as the most talented since 1981-82.

David Robinson's Navy duty and Armon Gilliam's broken toe in his first game deprived the NBA of its first two draft picks, but 15 other first-rounders are making significant, if not spectacular, contributions to their teams.

The class of the class appears to be in the backcourt, where Mark Jackson of New York, Kenny Smith of Sacramento, Indiana's Reggie Miller and Reggie Williams of the Clippers are excelling.

Already, 13 first-year players have scored 18 or more points in a single game, and nine rookies are averaging double figures. A 10th rookie, Dallas Comegys of New Jersey, is in double figures since he joined the Nets' starting lineup because of injuries.

Last season, only six rookies averaged 10 points or more.

None of this year's crop, however, is having the impact of the 1987 Rookie of the Year, Indiana's Chuck Person, or Cleveland's Ron Harper, who averaged nearly 23 points last season.

And no one this season is even approaching the sensation caused by the 1984-85 duo of Michael Jordan and Akeem Olajuwon.

But while the quality isn't there this year, the quantity of talent is impressive. Perhaps not as good as 1981--when Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas, Tom Chambers, Buck Williams, Larry Nance, Rolando Blackman, Steve Johnson, Orlando Woolridge and Kelly Tripucka arrived in the NBA--but impressive nonetheless.

The biggest surprise so far is Jackson, the 18th selection in the first round.

Jackson's ability as a court general was evident so quickly that Knick General Manager Al Bianchi got rid of two veteran point guards, Gerald Henderson and Rory Sparrow, before the season was 10 days old.

"We don't consider Jackson a rookie because he's shown such great poise," Bianchi said. "We know Mark can run the team.'

Jackson is averaging 11.5 points and is fifth in the NBA in assists with nine per game.

"His play has been just amazing," Knick Coach Rick Pitino said. "Mark has the ability when the defense is pressuring him to still make the perfect pass. He's been unbelievable."

"He's already one of the premier point guards in the league," 1985-86 rookie of the year Patrick Ewing said.

Although he already missed 11 games with a broken finger, Smith served notice that he will challenge Jackson as the best new point guard. Smith's scoring average of nearly 17 points is the highest among any rookie and he also has 7.5 assists per game.

But Coach Bill Russell quickly sensed Smith's value to the team. Smith averaged 37 minutes and started every game before he was injured.

"He's everything we hoped he would be," Kings' assistant Jerry Reynolds said.

Miller is averaging 12 points although his playing time has slipped recently after he started the season by scoring in double figures in 15 of the Pacers' first 16 games. But with 21 three-pointers in Indiana's first 23 games, he is still on pace to break Larry Bird's rookie record of 58.

"I thought the Pacers blew it when they drafted him, but he's a tough player," Bird said of Miller.

"You've got to guard him coming out of the locker room," Portland's Steve Johnson said of Miller. "He has no conscience."

The Clippers' Williams has struggled with injuries and doubts about whether he is best suited as a small forward or a shooting guard.

But he is averaging nearly 13 points for the offense-starved Clippers and has the rookie season-high of 34 points.

Not surprisingly, the top four rookies all play for very young or struggling teams, and consequently, they have gotten more opportunity to sparkle than other first-year players.

"I thought there were some pretty good players in this draft, but it's a matter of going with the right team and being in the right situation." Clipper General Manager Elgin Baylor said. "A lot of the rookies who are doing well are getting a chance to play. That's the main ingredient for success as a rookie--playing time."

Chicago and Seattle are two stronger teams that have brought their rookies along slowly, yet are giving them important roles.

Scottie Pippen is third on the Bulls in scoring behind Jordan and Charles Oakley, while Horace Grant has done well as a backup power forward, with as many as 19 points and 12 rebounds in one game against Houston.

"This Pippen kid is a big-time player," Coach Doug Collins said. "I don't think he thinks he's a rookie. Horace gives us new blood. Everything for him is new and exciting, and he loves to play."

Seattle's first-round picks were Derrick McKey and Olden Polynice, who both come off the bench behind high-scoring veterans Chambers and Xavier McDaniel.

"I don't even think of him as a rookie," teammate Dale Ellis said of McKey, who is averaging nine points, with a high of 18. "He sure doesn't play like one."

Perhaps the biggest disappointment among the first-rounders is No. 3 pick Dennis Hopson.

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