Rooked? He may not be Rookie of the Year, but Denver's Carmelo Anthony can use the playoffs to show he's the cream of the first-year crop

April 25, 2004

Last Saturday, on the eve of his first NBA playoff game, Denver
Nuggets rookie forward Carmelo Anthony thought he'd hit the mall
in Minneapolis--just slip in unnoticed, buy some sweats and slip
out. To avoid drawing attention he wore glasses and, over his
trademark braids, a 'do rag and a baseball cap. Considering that
Anthony is 6'8" and a bona fide star, it might have been one of
the worst disguises in history. Moments after he entered the mall
he was recognized, and his name--It's Carmelo!--echoed from
Blimpie to the Lady Foot Locker. Fans rushed toward him as if
there were a fire and he were the emergency exit. "It was like a
basketball game," he said that night at his hotel, shaking his
head. "They just kept coming and coming."

The Timberwolves welcomed Anthony to the postseason in much the
same way on Sunday, only instead of Sharpee-wielding teenagers
Minnesota used a succession of agile defenders. Latrell Sprewell
and Trenton Hassell shadowed him on the perimeter, and when
Anthony got into the lane he was promptly greeted--call it the
'Melo Hello--by 6'11" Ervin Johnson or 7-foot Michael Olowokandi.
And around every pick lurked Kevin Garnett, who, as Anthony puts
it, "tracks me no matter where I go." Anthony mustered 19 points
on 6-of-17 shooting as the Nuggets lost Game 1 of the
best-of-seven series 106-92.

When he answered reporters' questions afterward, Anthony referred
to the Nuggets as "my team" and deconstructed the game like a
veteran. Barely a year after leading Syracuse to an NCAA
championship, the 19-year-old Anthony has gone from freshman hero
to NBA franchise player. In training camp last October he told
anyone who'd listen that the Nuggets were going to double their
wins and contend for a playoff spot. "I remember all the writers
giving him sympathetic looks," says the team's media relations
manager, Eric Sebastian. "They'd come away saying, 'He'll
learn.'" And who could blame them? Denver hadn't reached the
postseason since 1995, and to sell tickets, the franchise had
even resorted to putting up a billboard that read, NENE HILARIO

But then the good ol' reliably bad Nuggets did something
peculiar: They started winning. Anthony almost immediately
established himself as their best player. "He's one of the
toughest covers in the league," Hassell said after Game 1. "He's
got great footwork, he's got body and he's tough." Perhaps most
impressively, Anthony rolled over the rookie wall like a Hummer
over a sandcastle. In the 33 games after Feb. 1 he shot better
(44.4% to 41.1%) and averaged more points (24.7 to 18.6) than he
had in the first 49 games of the season. He attributes this in
part to a fried-food-free diet, which helped him drop 21 pounds
from his Syracuse playing weight of 245, and to understanding the
game better as the season progressed. "He grew a lot," says
Nuggets coach Jeff Bzdelik. "He improved defensively, ran the
court better and became more aware of how other teams play him."

The Nuggets went from 17-65 in 2002-03 to 43-39 and held off the
Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers for the final Western
Conference spot. With an average of 21.0 points, Anthony became
the first rookie since David Robinson in 1989-90 to lead a
playoff team in scoring. Nevertheless, last week LeBron James of
the Cleveland Cavaliers (35-47) was named Rookie of the Year, a
result that Bzdelik called a "travesty" and Nuggets guard Jon
Barry labeled "a complete sham." Anthony heard the news on Sunday
morning before the team shootaround and, although disappointed,
praised James to the media. The statement he released, however,
slyly underlined the best argument for the voters to have chosen
him: Anthony helped his team to the playoffs, while James's
season is over. "I'm really happy for LeBron," the statement
read, "but I'm not real worried about the Rookie of the Year
Award right now. My focus is on Minnesota."

James was the more hyped rookie, but Anthony wasn't that far
behind. He has his own candy bar (Melo), the lead in a Warner
Brothers movie that begins filming in August (Playground) and the
second-best-selling jersey in the league (behind James's, of
course). "I don't know how he handles [the celebrity]," says
Nuggets forward Rodney White, Anthony's best friend on the team.
"He doesn't let it get to him, and--this is what's crazy--he's
the one who makes the rest of us feel comfortable."

Anthony wasn't so comfortable in Game 1. He was tentative in the
first half, taking only six shots and hitting two, and then
forced jumpers after the break. Unfazed by the loss, he joked
with friends afterward and even posed for a photo with Minnesota
guard Sam Cassell. He complimented the top-seeded T-Wolves on
their team D and talked of how the Nuggets had to improve their
defensive rebounding and pick-and-roll coverage. Asked how the
playoffs compared with March Madness, he said, "This is way
better. Last year was just one game. This is a seven-game

Indeed it is, but for the Nuggets to have a chance, Anthony must
shoot early, often and with confidence; the last thing Denver
wants to see is backup center Chris Andersen, the 12th of 12
offensive options, hoisting jumpers from the free throw line as
he did on Sunday. Anthony also needs to keep attacking the
basket, so he can get to the line. Denver has plenty of perimeter
shooters (Barry, Voshon Lenard, Earl Boykins), but Anthony is the
only one who can create contact in the lane and still finish.
Finally--and this may be asking too much--Anthony must convince
his teammates that they can win this series, because that's what
a star does. Even if he's not fully aware that he's a star.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN BIEVER TEEN IDOL Anthony got plenty of support in the Target Center stands, but clear paths to the hoop were scarce in Game 1.