Out of the spotlight, thanks to Danny Manning et al, and thankful that they are no longer rookies, the players from the Clippers’ draft class of 1987 are ready to go.
Last season’s rookies were the great future before Manning, Charles Smith and Gary Grant came along. Now, Reggie Williams, Joe Wolf and Ken Norman have become part of what the Clippers hope is the great foundation.
“There was a lot of pressure on us three to turn around what had been built up in the previous 10 years, which was crazy,” said Wolf, the second of the three first-round draft choices and the 13th pick overall.
Together, they formed a fraternity of frustration. Williams, the fourth pick in the draft, was held back by injuries and inconsistent shooting. Wolf battled injuries and, if the still-unsigned Manning lives up to his billing, doesn’t even figure to start in 1988. Norman, the last of the ’87 headliners and the No. 19 pick overall, was not injured but sat out 12 of the first 33 games anyway before coming on strong at the end.
“I still think it was a good draft,” said General Manager Elgin Baylor. “Certainly, you want every player to be a success story. But looking back, you can’t really put a true evaluation on the draft . . . for 2 or 3 years.”
So now, the class of ’87 is starting that second year.
The medical chart: Strained his left knee in early January and missed 21 consecutive games. Returned to play in 7 games and then sprained ligaments in his right knee in mid-March, which took care of the final 22 games. In all, he missed 47 of 82 games and then missed summer league while rehabilitating.
When he did play, he was an erratic shooter. So his mental outlook got banged up, too.
“I wasn’t sure about my role last year, like many of us,” said Williams, who averaged 10.4 points and 24.5 minutes a game. “But it’s like coming in this time, I have a different attitude. I’m in camp early, I’m not a holdout (as he was last season), so I can learn the plays faster. Last year, I came in the week before the season started and had so much to learn.
“I was frustrated. I was on a poor team that wasn’t going anywhere, and I felt I made things tough on myself. I would miss a shot and get upset. I shouldn’t have let that happen, but I did. This year, I feel a lot better.”
He apparently spoke too soon. The Clippers, who were hoping that he would emerge as the starting shooting guard, have had to play the waiting game again as Williams, 24, misses practice after practice with a sprained right foot and painful toes caused by a blood blister. Time is running, but Williams isn’t.
“But when he does work out, he seems to have more energy, more enthusiasm,” Baylor said. “Particularly with his shooting, there seems to be more concentration.”
There just needs to be more of Williams.
"(Who will start at shooting guard) is still a big question mark,” Coach Gene Shue said.
He grew up in Wisconsin and attended North Carolina, but the former All-Atlantic Coast Conference player has become very familiar with the beaches of Southern California.
The sand just outside the door of his rented Manhattan Beach house was Wolf’s place to find solace, to get away from the pressure, to think about coming back strong at his next opportunity. He spent a lot of time thinking about his next opportunity.
“Ken Norman did a great job, but Reggie and I were hurt by injuries,” he said. “The three of us were inconsistent, and we made the team inconsistent because of it.”
Wolf, 23, missed 40 of the 82 games last season, including 8 after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee in December and the final 29 after spraining the same right knee. When he did play, he averaged 27.1 minutes and 7.6 points a game, shooting only 40.7% from the field.
He also played out of position. A 6-foot 11-inch, 230-pounder, he spent a lot of time at small forward, with Michael Cage, the eventual National Basketball Assn. rebounding champion, playing inside. Wolf did play a lot of small forward at North Carolina, but he didn’t have the speed to stay there in the pros, so when the Clippers asked him to step outside for a minute, he lost his way.
“The pros are a lot more individualistic, whereas college taught me to move the ball and hit the open man,” Wolf said. “In the pros, you work more one-on-one and take the shot a lot quicker. Boom.”
Now, there is Manning, who presumably will arrive sometime. The No. 1 pick in the country also figures to play power forward, and he has the speed and passing ability the Clippers want in changing to an up-tempo team.
If the power game calls, though, Wolf, who was caught in a time pinch last season, says he’ll be ready.
“I’m stronger,” he said. “All three of us are. I know I have improved so much. I still have to work on my strength as far as being a post man, but I feel so much more confident, so much more comfortable about playing in the NBA.”
In the gym at Malcolm X Junior College in Chicago, not far from where Norman grew up, the jump shots rained down on the basket last summer. Sometimes 500 a day, sometimes 1,000, whatever he felt he needed at that time to improve his accuracy from 23 feet in.
“Shot, shot, shot, until my arms fell off,” Norman, a two-time All-Big Ten selection at Illinois, recalled. “I knew it was my primary weakness. I can drive to the basket, but I wanted to improve the other aspects of my game.”
So he did. And after spending most of the first half of his rookie season on the bench before finishing strong with 66 games played, Norman has been one of the most impressive Clippers in training camp. To be sure, Shue said, he is the most improved.
“He was a player who was uncertain, who had to gather himself every time he shot, who did not have a real understanding of the pro game, who, basically, was unsure of himself,” Shue said of the rookie Norman.
“There is no comparison between the Ken Norman of this year and of this time last year. Ken is a classic example of a player who really had the desire to be a pro player.”
Norman, 24, was a post player at Illinois, so the move to the NBA meant a change of position to small forward. As the transition apparently has been made before the start of his second season, his role on the team appears to be the most prominent of last year’s first-rounders.
“I say it all the time--my first year here reminded me of Illinois,” he said. “When I first went there, I didn’t have the opportunity to play, either. But I felt comfortable and thought I had the ability to play as good (as) or better than anybody ahead of me. I wanted to work to prove that, and it happened. Some guys got injured and I got my chance.
“I feel like I can go out and play like any other good player in the league and compete with them.”
Winners of 3 of their first 4 exhibition games, the Clippers will play the Seattle SuperSonics tonight at 7:30 at the Sports Arena. This is the Clippers’ first game at the Sports Arena this season and their only exhibition appearance there. They don’t return until a Nov. 12 regular-season meeting with Phoenix.
The game also marks the return of Michael Cage to Los Angeles. Cage won the NBA rebounding title last season while playing for the Clippers but was traded to the SuperSonics in a three-way deal that also included Philadelphia and brought rookies Charles Smith and Gary Grant to Los Angeles.