Tuesday November 27th, 2007

The list of the NBA's scoring leaders reads like a roll call of league royalty: LeBron James. Kobe Bryant. Tracy McGrady. Kevin Martin. Carmelo Anthony.... Wait, Kevin Martin? The fresh-faced, fresh-faded wisp of a Sacramento Kings two guard? The guy whose shooting stroke is just slightly more sightly than Charles Barkley's golf swing? "People remind me that I'm up there all the time," says Martin of the scoring list. "Those are elite players. I'm just a guy trying to get better."

While Martin, 24, doesn't have much more room to grow in the points department -- through Sunday he was averaging 25.2 -- his profile could stand to fill out.

From his roots as a 99-pound freshman at Zanesville (Ohio) High to his three seasons at mid-major Western Carolina to his four years with a mediocre team in one of the NBA's smallest markets, he has drawn little attention. Still, at every level he has shown that he's more than capable of putting up buzzworthy numbers.

Drafted by the Kings with the 26th pick in 2004, the 6' 7", 185-pound Martin averaged just 2.9 points in 10.2 minutes as a rookie. He could still hear the words of pundits who panned his decision to turn pro after his junior season (that is, the few who even noticed that he had applied for early entry). But whatever doubts Martin had were quickly dispelled when he remembered why he chose to leave Cullowhee, N.C., as the fourth-leading scorer in Catamounts history, having averaged 22 points or more every season. "I believed that staying in school wouldn't have helped me become a better NBA player," says Martin. "I learned more about the NBA game sitting behind Cuttino Mobley and Doug Christie [as a rookie] than I would have if I'd gone back for my senior year."

Indeed, Martin has proved to be a remarkably quick study. During his first season Sacramento assistant Pete Carril noticed that when Martin began his herky-jerky shooting motion, his right arm would cross his face, impeding his vision. So after the Kings were eliminated from the playoffs, Martin remained in Sacramento for two weeks to work with Carril on holding the ball more to the right when he squared to shoot. The adjustment paid immediate dividends: In his second season Martin averaged 10.8 points and shot 48.0% from the field.

In the middle of that campaign the Kings acquired forward Ron Artest from the Indiana Pacers. "Ron was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Martin, undoubtedly the first person even loosely affiliated with the NBA to make that claim. "He told me that he loved playing with Reggie [Miller] and that I played a lot like him." That summer Martin devoted hours to watching video of Miller's games, studying the way the veteran guard moved without the ball and the angles he took to get to the basket. "[Martin] scores a lot when the play isn't run for him," says Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Bob Ociepka. "He's active off the weak side. He cuts. He's always moving, which makes him tough to guard."

Unhappy that he attempted just 277 free throws in his first two seasons, Martin also dissected film of Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, noting how Wade drew contact by pump-faking and attacking the goal from different angles. Last season Martin was runner-up for the Most Improved Player award after averaging career highs in points (20.2), rebounds (4.3), assists (2.2) and steals (1.23) -- and setting a Sacramento record for free throws made (481, out of 570 tries). "Anytime you get to the line in the first few minutes and get some points, that gets you going," says T-Wolves swingman Greg Buckner, who has already guarded Martin in two games this season. "He's the man on that team. You've got to pay attention to him, or he's going to get 40."

At week's end Martin was on pace to surpass his 2006-07 numbers; he also ranked second in the league in free throws made per game (8.8) and was shooting a career-high 40.6% from three-point range. Martin scored more than 20 points in his first nine games, including a career-high 43 against the Knicks on Nov. 16. He poked and prodded the New York defense to draw fouls (19 free throw attempts), pulled down one more rebound (10) than 6' 11", 285-pound Knicks center Eddy Curry and sealed the 123-118 victory in the second overtime with a feathery three-pointer. "I called him All-Star [last season], but now I'm calling him First Team," says Artest. "I'm about to call him MVP."

Martin's production may decrease now that Artest is back in the lineup -- he was serving a seven-game suspension for pleading no contest last summer to a domestic-violence charge -- but if he continues his all-around play, the league's most unheralded player will soon become a household name. Who knows? Maybe in some obscure town a scrawny small-college guard with a screwy shot is watching video of Martin now, learning the fine arts of an elite NBA scorer.

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