His knee and reputation rehabilitated, Portland's Zach Randolph is off to his best start and filling a leadership void
THE TRAIL BLAZERS' Zach Randolph looks like an elongated version of Babe Ruth, from his thick, rounded shoulders to his spindly legs—and for that he is grateful. "I'm no high jumper who jumps over the rim," acknowledges Randolph, an earthbound forward out of the 1950s NBA mold. "I thank the Lord for that." It's because he plays close to the ground that the 6'9", 215-pound Randolph has emerged as a surprise All-Star candidate. His lack of athleticism has contributed to a steady recovery from microfracture surgery on his right knee in March 2005.
The procedure has produced mixed results around the league: Among players who had the surgery in the last 3 1/2 years, Jason Kidd appears to be back to his old self, but Chris Webber, Kenyon Martin and Amaré Stoudemire have yet to regain their explosiveness. Fortunately for the 25-year-old Randolph, who was averaging a team-high 25.1 points and 10.2 rebounds through Sunday, his game has always been more about footwork and guile than about playing above the rim.
"It's a long healing process," says Randolph, who played 74 games last season with residual knee pain that factored into his taking too many perimeter jumpers. (His shooting plummeted to a career-low 43.6%.) The drop-off in performance was a crucial test of his character. He responded by vigorously rehabbing his knee—as well as his unorthodox low-post game and his relationship with second-year coach Nate McMillan, who had been critical of Randolph's me-first mentality.
In the off-season Randolph trained with Blazers coaches who visited him at his Atlanta home. He traveled to Las Vegas to meet the team's rookies during summer league and also made three trips to Portland to work out at the team's facilities. A month before the start of camp much of the team was already in the Rose City going through unofficial workouts. (Randolph dropped nearly 20 pounds this summer.) The Blazers acknowledged the leadership role Randolph was taking by voting him a co-captain. "We're communicating, whereas last year we really weren't," McMillan says of Randolph. "He's gotten off to a pretty good start, and I'm going to push him harder because I want to get every inch of positive energy out of him I can."
The coach is particularly pleased to see Randolph pass out of double teams and work harder on defense. "A guy like that will never be a stopper, but if he's making the effort, that's about as good as you're going to get," says McMillan. "It isn't like last year, whether it was his legs or he just didn't care."
The knee hurts only occasionally. "It isn't 100 percent yet, but it's getting there," says Randolph, who is again beating taller, athletic defenders to the rim with his unique array of twirling moves and flip shots. Despite five rotation players missing time this season because of injuries, the young Blazers—picked by many to be the worst team in the Western Conference—were off to a 6--9 start, which included upsets of the Lakers and the Hornets. Last week Portland completed a home-and-away sweep of the Nets by overcoming a 14-point deficit, with Randolph scoring 21 in the second half.
If Randolph keeps up his current production, the Blazers will stop taking heat for giving him a six-year, $84 million extension that kicked in last season and instead will be able to focus on re building around him as one of the NBA's few low-post stars. Randolph promises to maintain his intensity even if the losses start to pile up and cost him personal rewards—such as a trip to Las Vegas on Feb. 18. "I definitely want to get on the All-Star team; it's every player's dream," says Randolph. "But I'm just going to continue to work hard, try to win games and help my teammates get better."
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On the referees' crackdown on two infractions:
"In the past some veterans got away with palming the ball as well as with changing their pivot foot, which gave them a quick first step. Now they have to adapt because those moves are no longer being overlooked by the officials. Kevin Garnett (right) is one player who's at a disadvantage because of the refs' new vigilance: He used to face up by changing his pivot foot, and he'd back into the post while palming the ball, knowing that the discontinued dribble would keep the defense off-balance. But he can't use those moves anymore. This change is why you see every opposing coach pointing and yelling that Dwyane Wade is palming the ball, because he's one of the guys who is still getting away with it."