September 17, 1999 SAN ANTONIO Early in the 1997-98 NBA season, San Antonio Spurs rookie Tim Duncan quickly and quietly won praise around the league as the game's next great big man.
Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown found himself wishing he had done more to trade up for the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft. "I would have traded my whole team for Duncan," said Brown, who has suggested that Michael Jordan might be the only better player in the NBA. "Tim Duncan is special. I was so
impressed with the kid.
"He and David Robinson are going to have something special."
With Robinson missing all but six games last season with a back injury, the Spurs had only 20 wins and then got lucky in the lottery, where three teams had a better chance of drawing the No. 1 pick.
Now the Spurs, after a 56-26 mark during the regular season, are on track to challenge for the Western Conference title.
Duncan's rookie-of-the-year competition with the Nets' Keith Van Horn has been over since the All-Star break. In the end, Duncan led all rookies in starts (82 of 82), scoring (21.1), rebounding (12.0), blocked shots (2.54) and field-goal percentage (54.6). His 57 double-double performances easily surpassed last season's league-leading total of 47 by the Knicks' Patrick Ewing. The other half of the "Twin Towers," seven-foot center David Robinson, gave the Spurs two of the five players in the NBA who averaged at least 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, but by season's end it looked as if the 6-11 Duncan already had begun to push The Admiral into a supporting role. Some compare Duncan to former Boston Celtics power forward Kevin McHale because of his athleticism and footwork around the basket. But Duncan soon will be viewed in a class by himself because he makes the game look so easy with his fluid grace and his instinct for the ball.
"It's ridiculous how good Tim is," Spurs coach and general manager Gregg Popovich said. "He can shoot the jumper; he's got range to the three-point line; he's got jump hooks right and left; he can catch it, pull it through and drive on people, and he can pull up and hit the jumper. "On defense, he runs back as well as anybody. He can guard a big forward or a small forward, and then he can go inside and guard a center. He's a shotblocker. "He's incredible."
The only quality Duncan lacks is a glib presence with the media. He often affects a sullen and disinterested demeanor in interviews, but in a trash-talking world, he stands out as a player whose game speaks eloquently and whose actions never demean his opponents.
"Tim is totally unimpressed with all the hoopla around the NBA," Popovich said. "He's got it in perspective. He's very competitive, but he happens to have a bit of maturity. "Four years under (coach Dave Odom at Wake Forest) served him well. He understands about 'team,' and he's had more coaching criticism and knows how to handle it."
With a 56-26 record, the Spurs improved 36 games from last season. That marked the most dramatic one-season jump in league history. Bizarre-statistics lovers everywhere in the
Alamo City enjoyed it immensely when the Spurs claimed the record.
For one thing, it erased the ugly memories of last season, when the Spurs established the negative NBA record of a 39-game crash in the standings. They fell from 59 wins in 1995-96, all the way down to a lottery finish last spring at 20-62.
It was a disaster that befell the franchise in the wake of injuries to Robinson, Chuck Person, Sean Elliott and others.
Robinson also was in the mix when the Spurs set the positive turnaround record of 35 in 1989-90. That team went from 21-61 the previous season all the way up to 56-26 and a Midwest Division title.
Popovich, for one, doesn't place any great importance on this year's team breaking the record. But he said that the Spurs' resurgence was a testament to the rehabilitation efforts of last year's injured players and to the talent of Duncan. "Dave and Chuck and Sean worked very hard last summer," he said. "The difference in the record is that those guys made it back."
Robinson and Person played through pain all season. Elliott played through the end of January until he went down again, undergoing surgery to repair his left quadriceps tendon.
But even without Elliott, and with Robinson and Person sometimes playing at less than 100 percent, Duncan emerged to steady the team and keep it on a winning pace.
And he did it by playing small forward one night and power forward the next. Occasionally, he was even a center, the position he learned by staying four years at Wake Forest.
"He's been great," Popovich said. "Tim's uncanny with his ability to roll with all the changes." When Robinson carried the Spurs to a 35-game turnaround, he surpassed a few legends in the process. Rookie Larry Bird helped the Boston Celtics jump 32 games in the standings in 1979-80. Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, swept the Milwaukee Bucks to a 29-game improvement in 1969-70.
When the Spurs surpassed those records, it underscored the efforts of veterans who sweated through long hours in the weight room last summer. But it also illuminated the value of Duncan.
"It says a lot about Tim," Elliott said. "He's carried a big load. Chuck's been out some. David's missed some games. Tim's put a lot of people on his back this year." <div align="center"> <b>That Remarkable Demeanor
He's coachable. "He is the real thing," Popovich said.
Duncan departs radically from the image of the wonder lads who have been entering the NBA the past several seasons. You'll hear no wild proclamations on how he plans to win this or that honor. "I just don't look at the season as a time to win rookie of the year," he said. Yet, he will win the award. You'll also hear no promises of hammer dunks on famed veterans and/or other rookies. You won't be subjected to me-this and me-that, cries of not getting enough playing time or touches on the floor. You won't hear whines that simply nobody understands him or his playing style. Duncan is sure of his talent, just not interested in bragging about it. He prefers to talk about what has yet to be done.
"I have to see what I have to learn," he said. "Then I have to apply it every day against NBA players."
That seems to have been his guiding principle since moments after the Spurs won the draft lottery and announced they would select Duncan. <div align="center"> <b>Hard Work Silenced Doubters
"I know I never worked that hard during the summer before my rookie year," Robinson said. "He has shown great athleticism and attitude. He looked like he was in midseason form from Day One."
"I just want to get used to the guys," Duncan said, "get used to the plays."
He did, then noted that he didn't have to concentrate on a lot on conditioning work in camp because of all the previous labor. "Where did my work ethic come from? It's just been part of my life," Duncan said. "I did it while I was in the swimming program (some believe he could have made a try for the Olympic team). I had to be in the pool by myself, had to push myself." Basically, Duncan insists he just wants to play well. From the looks of the situation, that will be no problem.
Early Duncan reviews were laced with intimations of passivity. In-season reviews erased those pans.
Duncan may not be one to attract artificial attention, but he manages to wind up in the thick of things. He's consistently in the deep paint muscling for rebounds. He gets back fast on defense. The ball is continuously in his hands during attacks. He blocks shots and paths to the bucket. Every player should be so passive.
He already has post moves that Robinson envies.
"He's much better than I was at this stage of the game," Robinson said. "And he wants to just get better. That is a great mentality." On the court, Duncan moves with the cunning of an animal tracking its prey. He's a thinker, watching the action unfold, now keeping track of the ball, then looking for an open man. He spins and breezes through an opening, then turns and arcs a jumper that's all net.
"I love to pass," Duncan said. "Magic Johnson was my favorite player."
Duncan isn't overawed by the NBA elite, but he won't hesitate to incorporate a move or two. "I like to look at guys and maybe utilize some of their moves," he said. "I see something somebody does and say, I'd like to do that." Spurs point guard Avery Johnson marvels at Duncan's all-around skills, but says he's sure of the best spot for No. 21 in the long run: power forward. "He is a classic four, and that's the way we should look at him," Johnson said. "When Karl Malone and Charles Barkley retire, Tim really should come to the fore." Interesting he should bring up Barkley, the Houston Rockets forward and future Hall of Famer who is quick to criticize the younger players in today's NBA. Of all the rave reviews Duncan has received this season, Barkley said it best after getting the short end of a matchup with Duncan:
"I have seen the future of the league ... and he wears No. 21." <hr>