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No Passing Fad : Laker Floor Leader Van Exel Is Rounding Out His Game

October 20, 1994|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The light summer reading soon developed into a heavy burden, so Nick Van Exel decided to do something about it.

Change.

He would change the way he played point guard for the Lakers. His choice, but with other people prodding.

The prodders included:

--New Coach Del Harris, who prides himself on a history of very good relationships with previous point guards, including Mike Dunleavy and John Lucas.

--Assistant coach Larry Drew, who has become a mentor to Van Exel.

--And, apparently, most of all, the writers who took note of his propensity for shooting, of the fact that he had 154 more attempts than any other Laker despite a success rate of only 39.4% and more three-point tries than any four teammates combined.

"In the summer, I read a lot about how I would be a good player if I was more like a true point guard and passed more," he said. "I took that and used it in thesummer. Pass first, shoot second."

As a result, Van Exel's improved play has been one of the most obvious and discussed aspects of Laker training camp.

"I noticed a big difference," said Drew, a former NBA point guard. "As a matter of fact, I see him turning down some good shots. I see a more mature Nick Van Exel. Knowing that his scoring opportunities will come, he likes to get the other guys involved in the offense first. He knows now that is his responsibility. He's grown up, big time. For one thing, I don't see him getting as frustrated when things don't go well. Or I see him becoming more vocal. I see him becoming more of a leader."

Said Executive Vice President Jerry West: "Looking at him, you'd think it was someone who had played four or five years."

Instead, this is Van Exel's second season since West and the Lakers took him as the 37th pick in what became the steal of the 1993 draft.

The Cincinnati guard, whose goal while playing junior college ball in Texas was simply to play at a big-time school so he could get on TV once or twice, was named second-team all-rookie and ranked second among all first-year players in assists behind Anfernee Hardaway of Orlando and sixth in scoring (13.6).

Then came the off-season.

He read the stories that emphasized erratic, streaky shooting--he twice had six three-pointers in a game, a team regular-season record, but went three of 16 from behind the line on the last day of the season in a failed attempt to break Dennis Scott's all-time NBA rookie mark.

The stories mentioned the assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.2-1, commendable for a first-year player on a team trying to run, as an afterthought.

He signed a new five-year contract, which should bring a greater sense of security. He watched the playoffs and took particular note of John Stockton and how the Utah Jazz superstar, despite leading all guards in shooting during the regular season, looked to pass first. Haywoode Workman of the Indiana Pacers left the same impression.

Van Exel dedicated himself to becoming the prototype point guard. He wanted to play like Stockton, not merely against him. Instead of attempting to break a shooting record, he will try to average between eight and 10 assists, after finishing at 5.8 as a rookie.

"Last year, I played good in spurts," Van Exel said. "I learned a lot from that. From the first preseason game this year, I came in with 100% more confidence. It's all about confidence for me. When you have that, it's all about ability when you're out there."

Del Harris hears about Van Exel's strides since the end of last season and nods in agreement.

"He's done a nice job running the team," said Harris, who spent hours watching his new point guard on tape after being named Laker coach in May.

"You can tell by his body language and all, he is much more comfortable with the ball. I think he knows now he can score any time, but it's good to see him look to pass more."

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