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Leap Year

Vince Carter, a Late Arrival, Is Thrilled to Be a Member of Team USA and Clearly the One to Watch


In this age of the reluctant Olympic basketball player, consider Vince Carter.

He leaped at the chance, which is saying something.

Kangaroos don't have hops like his.

Invincible? Who knows? But get ready for Vinsanity Down Under.

So Shaquille O'Neal has enough gold medals and Kobe Bryant had other things to do.

When Carter's rather belated invitation to join the U.S. team arrived March 26--naming him to replace injured Tom Gugliotta a couple of months after being passed over for Ray Allen--his answer was a resounding yes, and the snub was forgotten.

"I look at this as the ultimate," Carter said. "People ask me what means more, the Olympics or a championship? I say the Olympics.

"The Olympics are only every four years. The NBA championship is every year. If you don't win one year, you can try to win the next year. If you don't win this, four years is a long time.

"Being in the Olympics and winning, that's like accomplishing the greatest thing in basketball besides becoming a Hall of Famer, in my mind."

Until Carter signed on, NBC probably felt like tape-delaying this Dream Team's games . . . indefinitely.

But Carter--whose 1,911,973 All-Star votes last season were the second-most in history behind you-know-who--makes the U.S. worth watching.

It's not the margin of victory: It's the margin between Carter's elbows and the rim.

For a few days after the U.S. team gathered in Maui for its pre-Olympic training camp, it seemed as if Carter--the youngest member of the team at 23--was making a concerted effort to blend into the scenery.

After all, word was the USA Basketball selection committee had purposefully tried to choose a group of solid and talented if not all the flashiest players.

That ended with the first two exhibitions. Carter came off the bench to score 29 points in 19 minutes against Canada, then scored 24 points against a team of college all-stars on 10-of-10 shooting with an array of five dunks. (He is, after all, the reigning NBA slam-dunk champion.)

"I knew he could jump, but that was ridiculous," Coach Rudy Tomjanovich said.

Alonzo Mourning was similarly taken aback.

"I can sit here and say I have seen the second coming," Mourning said. "I played against Michael Jordan. I saw MJ at his best, but I don't think MJ ever jumped that high. There are a lot of similarities, but then there a lot of things Vince can do better than Michael ever did.

"I thought I'd never see another, but he's definitely the second coming."

Ah, Michael.

Can we please leave all questions about him in the Northern Hemisphere?

Jordan is the one topic that turns the usually gracious Carter mum.

He has been compared to Jordan so much--start with the fact he averaged less than 20 points at North Carolina and then turned the NBA on its ear with his high-flying game--that he no longer will answer questions about him.

"Man . . . " Carter said when someone mentioned Jordan and the Dream Team as idly as one would mention Magic Johnson.

He is firm that there is nothing symbolic about wearing No. 9 for the Olympic team, as Jordan did in 1992 in Barcelona.

Gugliotta wore No. 9, so Carter inherited it, like it or not.

Carter's point--basically that he is not Jordan--is well-taken.

Jordan won six NBA titles, five most-valuable-player awards and 10 scoring titles.

Carter took the Toronto Raptors to the playoffs for the first time last season.

Worth noting, however, is the evolution of Carter's game.

He is no longer merely a dunker.

As an NBA rookie, he averaged 18.3 points a game and shot 29% from three-point range.

Last season, his average jumped to 25.7 points--fourth in the NBA--and his three-point percentage leaped to 40%.

His assists went from 1.5 a game to 3.9.

Philadelphia 76er Coach Larry Brown, an assistant to Tomjanovich on the Olympic team who played at North Carolina in the 1960s and is close to Dean Smith, has known Carter since he was in college.

"As a young player, I think he tried to fit in at Chapel Hill, and they had a lot of good players there," Brown said. "I know Coach [Smith] always felt he had an incredible upside. I remember when the draft was coming about, he talked to me about how special he thought he would be.

"But I don't think anybody could have predicted how quickly he'd become what he is now."

Hard to believe, but it was only 1998 when Carter played second fiddle to Tar Heel teammate Antawn Jamison, the national player of the year.

He since has passed Jamison--and a lot of other players--by leaps and bounds.

"And he still has a huge upside," Brown said. "I think he'll become a better ballhandler; he's improved tremendously in that department.

"As you get older, I think guys tend to become better shooters, and he's a pretty darn good shooter now.

"The thing that impressed me the most--aside from the obvious--is he really can pass. The more double-teams he starts to see, the better he can become, because he'll make other people pay. I saw a side of that last year."

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