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Farmar's in role of bit player

Last year, Lakers rookie was leading UCLA to NCAA title game; now he's mostly on bench.

March 13, 2007|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

Little more than half an hour remained at Target Center until the tipoff of the Lakers-Minnesota Timberwolves game last week.

It was a time for the fans to grab a hot dog and a beer, time for the cheerleaders to go through one last rehearsal, time for the players to engage in their mental preparation in the privacy of their locker room.

All but one player.

Lakers rookie guard Jordan Farmar still remained on the court, shooting three-pointers, driving to the basket, working on his defensive moves. And right there with him were assistant coaches Kurt Rambis and Brian Shaw, feeding Farmar the ball, serving as dummy defenders and yelling words of encouragement.

"He works his rear end off," Rambis said. "He's a gym rat. He wants to be great."

Farmar needs all the encouragement he can get these days. A year ago, he was at the center of the action as the point guard for UCLA, directing traffic, barking orders, firing up three-pointers and leading his club in the NCAA tournament, all the way to the championship game, in which the Bruins lost to the Florida Gators.

Twelve months later, with UCLA getting ready for this year's tournament, Farmar, 20, can't seem to get off the bench, his court time with the Lakers reduced to vigorous pregame warm-ups and a few sparse moments of playing time, except for emergency situations.

In 48 of the Lakers' first 55 games, Farmar's minutes reached double figures. Then he played a total of only 18 1/2 minutes over the next two games, sat for three of the following four games and played just over a minute in the other game.

Since then, Farmar has had only two sizable chunks of playing time, about 12 minutes against the Milwaukee Bucks and 23 minutes against the Dallas Mavericks. But there were extenuating circumstances in each case. Against Milwaukee, the Lakers, because of injuries and a Kobe Bryant suspension, had only nine players in uniform. Against Dallas on Sunday, Farmar got in when Smush Parker was ejected.

There's no mystery about the drastic cut in Farmar's playing time. For one thing, his overall play in the last 20 games has slipped. NBA coaches talk about "the wall" for rookies after the NBA schedule extends beyond the number of games they were accustomed to in college. Sure enough, Farmar's effectiveness declined soon after the Lakers' total number of games passed the Bruins' total for all of last season.

"He played really well, better than we expected he would play, for the first 40 games," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "Then, he kind of hit the wall. Now he's got to recover. He'll be back playing strong again, I think, by the end of the season. He's a solid player and we're looking forward to a great future for Jordan."

The other factor is the declining play of the team. The Lakers have lost 12 of their last 15, making the dreaded prospect of missing the playoffs a possibility.

So with two seldom-used veterans on his bench -- Aaron McKie, in his 13th NBA season, and Shammond Williams, with seven years in the league -- Jackson called on them to join Parker in the backcourt, all but removing Farmar from the mix.

"We needed a change, a little more stability out there," Jackson said. "We've gone to more experienced guards and, right now, Jordan has taken a bit of a hiatus. It's hard to play three guards, let alone four."

So at a time when the Lakers, injury-riddled and falling, could use some help, Farmar admits he's frustrated but is determined to stay upbeat.

"Of course everybody wants to play, but you just have to be ready and keep working. I'll be all right. This whole experience has taught me a lot," Farmar said. "It has helped me grow as a person and as a player. When I was at UCLA, coming back as a sophomore after my freshman year, I was so much better. Now I'm going through another adjustment period."

The two experiences are not that much different, he said.

"Playing in a major college program like UCLA," he said, "I was as close to the pro game as I could be, yet still be an amateur."

Also, don't float that theory about hitting the wall past Farmar.

"I'm fresh," he said. "I haven't played enough minutes to hit the wall."

Many questioned whether Farmar should be playing in the NBA at all this season. But he ignored those who thought he should spend another season as a Bruin. Not only did he achieve his goal of being a first-round draft choice, but he got to stay in his hometown when the Lakers made him the 26th selection overall. And Farmar proved wrong those who predicted he would be sent to the Development League.

He can afford to take the long view. He has a contract that guarantees him $939,000 for this season and just over $1 million for next season. The Lakers also have two one-year options on Farmar at $1.1 million and $1.95 million, which would take him through the 2009-10 season.

"He's very mature for a 20-year-old," said Farmar's mother, Mindy Kolani. "He told me, 'Mom, this is not something I'm just going to do for a year or two. This is what I love.'

"I'm very proud of the mature way he has handled this. He always gives 150%. Now he's going to have to give 200%."

Whatever playing time Farmar gets the rest of the season, he has already achieved a primary goal, one that was a factor in his desire to leave Westwood. He wanted his grandfather, Howard Baker, a former physician at UCLA and in private practice, to see him in the pros. Because Baker had cancer, Farmar didn't know whether he could wait to make the jump.

Baker died several weeks ago. But he had lived long enough to see his grandson in purple and gold.

And for Farmar, those are the most precious moments of all.

steve.springer@latimes.com

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