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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Brown Turning Into Huge Presence in the Middle

November 03, 2002|Michael Wilbon | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- It's a stunning reversal, from last year to this, really from April to October. Even deep into the summer, word on the street was that Kwame Brown was getting handled. He was getting schooled by young pros who live in the D.C. area in the offseason, even by some of the University of Maryland players. The Wizards' coaches and veterans thought Brown was overweight just before camp began. There was no outward hint that the first high school kid to be drafted No. 1 overall was about to stop being a bust and become a monster.

But that's what has happened, virtually overnight. OK, it's only two games. And as Brown was quick to say, "I'm not about to get a big head when we've got 80 more games to play." But still, the transformation is unbelievable.

After a 12-point, 18-rebound, five-block performance in the season opener at Toronto Wednesday night, Doug Collins said he told his coaches, "This'll be a great challenge, to see how Kwame does in a back-to-back situation."

Well, here's how Brown did: 20 points on eight-for-12 shooting, six rebounds and six blocked shots. That's 11 blocked shots in two games. There aren't five players in the NBA who can block 11 shots in two games.

It's the early shocker of the season.

"Sometimes," Collins said, "you just don't know what clicks. You just don't."

"He's relieved, I'm relieved, I think everybody's relieved," Michael Jordan said.

"He's going to prove over and over again in his career why he was picked number one in the draft," Celtics Coach Jim O'Brien said.

The kid still doesn't have much of a game. He doesn't have any pet moves, isn't a great shooter. Yet, there were little stretches last night when he was the most dominant force on the floor, swatting and changing shots, filling the lane, harassing Celtics into bad decisions. "He was all over the place," Jordan said. "He's infectious."

On a night when the Wizards played as fine a game as their demanding coach could possibly ask for, a whole lot went right. The Wizards handed Boston the most lopsided loss in Celtics history. Jerry Stackhouse showed just how far he's come as an offensive player, handing out 10 assists while committing only three turnovers.

Jordan, the Icon, scored 21 points in 22 minutes vs. a team he struggled against last season. Jared Jeffries, the 6-foot-11 rookie, showed he will soon be a smooth, box-score filling player with feel and intelligence in his game, not to mention a wonderful demeanor. Tyronn Lue showed he has some playmaking ability to go with his three-point shooting and harassing defense.

Still, even with all that, Brown's the story on the Wizards. Brown's the one who sent people home shaking their heads.

And to think, late last March Collins noticed that Brown's face had broken out, that the kid was exhibiting noticeable signs of stress, even if he didn't know it.

So what happened?

He's growing up.

Yes, it's that simple, and even he knows it. "NBA life is so difficult," Brown said afterward. "Last year, I would get tired from just traveling. It's not like a high school trip, where you take a bus trip, play the game, and go home that night. I didn't know how to play the game. ... Last year I was so robotic. If a play broke down I didn't know what to do."

Collins gets a huge assist for realizing last spring his impatience wasn't helping matters. And while Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing haven't been here long, they also get a big assist for Brown's recent improvement.

One guy who deserves a bigger slice of credit, whose name you won't often hear, is Duane Ferrell. The former Georgia Tech star and NBA forward was brought on as the director of player programs. Last year, that meant baby-sitting Brown.

It fell to Ferrell to teach Brown how a professional athlete should eat, sleep, travel. Ferrell showed Brown how to pack, told him how long pre-game naps should be. Ferrell had to beg Collins and Jordan, two of the most impatient men by nature you'll meet, to back off now and then, to pat Brown on the back instead of kick him in the butt.

There was no blueprint because no team in NBA history had ever taken a high school kid with the first pick in the draft. They were all flying blind. Ferrell was certain he could see the future. The signing of Oakley and Ewing was like the arrival of the cavalry.

"Charles is always in my ear," Brown said. "If I slip up one bit, I hear it. If I go five minutes without hearing something from Charles, something's wrong."

Of course, that's not how Oakley sees it. Oakley, though he is still active and will have to contribute on the court this season, has done this kind of mentoring in Toronto and Chicago. But he knows when to push, and when to hug. "I told him to prove to people why he's the number one pick," Oakley said. "Does he listen to me? I don't know what he did in another class, but when you come to my class it's full attention."

Collins told Oakley he's not sure how many minutes Oakley will play early in this season, but added, "You can do more for that young guy than I could ever do."

This is why Oakley, if he doesn't score a point or grab a rebound this month, is worth his weight in gold for this franchise.

So what now? Won't we expect Brown to start rebounding, scoring and blocking shots with regularity? Is he ready for those heavy expectations? "I'll tell him," Jordan said, "that now the thing is that everybody will expect everything. You've got to be ready to do it every single night." Two nights is a long way from consistently, but it's a start.

At his cubicle in the locker room, Brown said, "I'm gaining these guys' respect and trust." Eight months ago, it seemed that basic relationship might take two more years to build, if not more. Suddenly, it seems possible Brown may earn that respect and trust much sooner, maybe even now.

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