The Kerry Kittles kit contains the Kerry Kittles highlight
video, the Kerry Kittles press clippings, the Kerry Kittles
bumper sticker, the Kerry Kittles button and the Kerry Kittles
replica jersey. (What, no Kerry Kittles action figure?) That
means the leader of the NBA Rookie of the Year campaign
paraphernalia sweepstakes is...Kerry Kittles! The Kittles
kit--which is distributed by the public relations department of
the New Jersey Nets and not by Kittles himself--flattens the
Shareef Abdur-Rahim pop-up greeting card, makes a molehill of
the mountain of printed testimonials in the Antoine Walker press
packet, dwarfs the envelope full of laudatory Marcus Camby
articles and totally obscures the Allen Iverson postcards.
Why all this electioneering on behalf of the NBA's top rookies?
Why all these knickknacks? Because this year the Rookie of the
Year race has such a heavily populated field that the media
members who vote on the award need all the help they can get.
Not that any self-respecting journalist would be swayed by a
bumper sticker, of course. Through independent analysis, a
reporter should come to the only logical conclusion: The
league's best rookie is Iverson, the Philadelphia 76ers'
electrifying but erratic point guard, who is the top scorer
(21.6 average through Sunday) among first-year players. Unless,
of course, it is Abdur-Rahim, the Vancouver Grizzlies'
smooth-as-syrup forward, whose offensive improvement over the
course of the season (he has averaged 18.3 points per game) has
been breathtaking. Or maybe it's Kittles, a shooting guard who,
at 6'5" and 179 pounds, is as thin as dental floss but has
displayed an unexpected durability (36.7 minutes per game) and a
consistency rare among rookies.
Then again, the top rookie could be point guard Stephon Marbury
of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who was described by one Eastern
Conference coach as "Iverson without the turnovers." And what
about the 6'11" Camby, the Toronto Raptors' center-forward, who
through Sunday had missed 17 games with injuries (including a
sprained lower back) but has come on with a rush in the past
month (21.1-point average in March)? Or the versatile 6'9"
Walker of the Boston Celtics, who has played all five positions
this season? Or the quietly efficient 6'5" Ray Allen, who was
averaging 12.9 points and has solved the Milwaukee Bucks'
chronic weakness at shooting guard? On second thought, can we
see those pop-up cards and bumper stickers again?
The lottery picks of the 1996 draft have produced one of the
richest rookie crops in memory. Not until you reach the seventh
spot of that draft, where the Los Angeles Clippers chose forward
Lorenzen Wright over Kittles (who was taken next), do you find a
team that has reason to second-guess its pick. Moreover, several
later choices have been surprisingly productive, including the
Cleveland Cavaliers' 6'10" center-forward, Vitaly Potapenko,
picked 12th, and three Los Angeles Lakers--two guards, 6'6" Kobe
Bryant (13th) and 6'2" Derek Fisher (24th) and, most notably,
7-foot forward-center Travis Knight (29th). The final pick of
the first round, Knight was selected by the Chicago Bulls, who
decided three weeks later not to sign him and renounced their
rights to him. He signed with the Lakers and went on to
contribute the quote of the season by a rookie, referring to how
NBA newcomers believe they seldom get the benefit of the doubt
from officials. Asked when he feels most like a rookie, Knight
replied, "When the referee blows his whistle."
Even rookies who weren't drafted last year have made major
contributions. The oldest first-year player in the league,
30-year-old Dean Garrett, a 6'10" center for Minnesota, was
drafted in 1988 by the Phoenix Suns but missed what would have
been his first NBA season with a broken foot. He spent seven
years playing in Europe. This season Garrett has become a solid
starter for the Timberwolves, averaging 7.8 points and 7.1
rebounds. The Dallas Mavericks' 6'3" guard Erick Strickland, a
former CBA player, has become the eighth-leading scorer (11.8 at
week's end) among rookies since being signed to a 10-day
contract in February.
The front-runners for Rookie of the Year, though, appear to be
Abdur-Rahim and Iverson, with Marbury and Kittles each close
enough to win the award with a strong finish. As in any
election, personalities and popularity come into play. Iverson
may be the Bob Dole of this race--saddled with a negative image
that he is unwilling or unable to shake, one partly engendered
by his league-worst 4.3 turnovers per game through Sunday. He
seems to have been at odds with the league and its most popular
players almost from the moment he put on a Sixers uniform. There
was the celebrated comment about Michael Jordan (Iverson said he
didn't have to respect the Bulls' star, later amending that and
saying what he meant was that he didn't fear Jordan); there was
the league prohibition of his black ankle braces; and a
leaguewide directive against carrying the ball, which seemed
aimed at Iverson's signature crossover dribble. Then there was
his admission that he carries a handgun for protection.
Unfortunately for Iverson, an endorsement from the National
Rifle Association would mean nothing in this election. "I
couldn't vote for him," says Atlanta Hawks assistant Stan
Albeck. "You've got to do things the right way. There has to be
some consideration as far as attitude and behavior are concerned."
However, the 6-foot Iverson has a significant number of
supporters who think his scoring, plus his 7.2 assists and 4.1
rebounds per game through Sunday, should be all that matter. "I
think the Rookie of the Year has to be Iverson," says Raptors
assistant Brendan Suhr. "He's a fabulous talent. He does great
things on the court. I don't think you can hold the other stuff
against him. He's a rookie, remember? And he's with a bad team.
[The Sixers were 20-50 at week's end.] It's tough to ask a
rookie to carry a team, but he tries to do it every night."
If Iverson is Dole, then Abdur-Rahim is playing the Bill Clinton
role, so amiable and engaging that his flaws ("I don't know why
everyone's so crazy about him," says one Western Conference
general manager. "He doesn't guard anybody") seem to go
unnoticed. He is the anti-Iverson, at least in terms of public
image. The 20-year-old Abdur-Rahim, whose full name means noble
servant of the most merciful one, has been unfailingly
respectful of the league's veterans and has avoided anything
resembling a controversy. This has earned him points with his
But the 6'9" Abdur-Rahim, who left Cal after his freshman year,
hasn't become a Rookie of the Year contender on personality
alone. He has made the biggest improvement of any first-year
player this season, especially on offense. He averaged 11.5
points in November, 18.9 in December, 20.0 in January and 24.5
in February before dropping off to 18.4 in March. Abdur-Rahim
was named co-rookie of the month in December with Kittles before
winning the distinction alone in February. (Iverson and Marbury
were the November and January winners, respectively.) Among
rookies, through Sunday, Abdur-Rahim ranked in the top five in
scoring (18.3), rebounding (6.6), blocks (0.96) and minutes
(34.5). Moreover, he plays on an even worse team--the Grizzlies
were 12-62--than Iverson's Sixers.
"It would be hard to argue against Abdur-Rahim," says Portland
Trail Blazers assistant Rick Carlisle. "I like his feel for the
game, his ability to go inside and outside. In this age of
multidimensional players, he's a guy who can play big or small.
He's the kind of player who is always going to be there for
All-Star consideration, who quietly goes about his business, the
kind every team wants to have as its best or second-best player."
Faced with such a first-rate rival, Iverson senses the
prevailing sentiment going against him, and as he argues his
case, he also seems to be steeling himself for disappointment.
"Even though a lot of people feel I deserve it, and I feel I
deserve it, something strange can happen," he says, referring to
the rookie-award vote, "and I've prepared myself for that. But I
feel I've performed the best."
There are those, however, who say that he hasn't even been the
best rookie at his position. Marbury has been less flashy but
arguably just as effective in helping lead the Timberwolves to
the brink of their first playoff berth in franchise history. At
week's end he was averaging fewer turnovers (3.0) and more
assists (7.7, which led all rookies and was 10th in the league)
than Iverson. Although Marbury's scoring average (15.4) was
fifth among rookies, his supporters point out that he is the
only rookie making a vital contribution to a playoff-bound team.
"Stephon could average 20 points a game if he wanted," says
Minnesota coach Flip Saunders. "He has played the second half of
the season knowing that his performance has an impact on whether
or not we make the playoffs. That's a pressure the other rookies
haven't really had to face."
But in the case of an individual award, it doesn't seem fair to
give a great deal of weight to team records, which depend on a
variety of factors. Give Marbury credit for playing on the best
team, give Iverson credit for being the most entertaining, and
give Kittles credit for having the maturity to maintain a high
level of performance (a 15.8-point average at week's end)
despite a typically chaotic season at the Meadowlands. But give
the Rookie of the Year award to the player who has shown the
steadiest improvement all season, to the player who has
displayed the best combination of talent and attitude of any
newcomer in the league, to the player with the really nifty
pop-up card. Give it to Shareef Abdur-Rahim.