The NBA’s rookie class of 1988-89 will be remembered more for breaking down than breaking in.
No. 1 pick Danny Manning averaged 16.7 points in 26 games for the Clippers before suffering a serious knee injury. He is among four Olympians, all first-round draft choices, who have missed significant playing time with illness and injury.
Milwaukee’s Jeff Grayer, Dan Majerle of Phoenix and Charles Smith of the Clippers also have been on the injury list for much of the season, while Charlotte’s Rex Chapman and Sylvester Gray of Miami have spent significant time on the sidelines as well.
But the long list of casualties has not left the NBA devoid of new talent, including some virtual unknowns before the season.
The star of the group is yet another Olympian, Mitch Richmond, a key factor in the Golden State Warriors’ quick turnaround from doormats to strong playoff contenders.
With a 20.8 scoring average, Richmond could become the first Rookie of the Year to come from a winning team since Buck Williams of the New Jersey Nets, who were 44-38 when he won the award in 1982.
In fact, only three of the 15 players on the All-Rookie teams the last three years came from winning teams. They were Derrick McKey with Seattle last season, Roy Tarpley of Dallas in 1986-87 and Joe Dumars of Detroit in 1985-86.
“We knew Mitch had star potential when we drafted him (fifth in the first round),” Warriors coach Don Nelson said. “But we’ve been surprised that he’s been so good so early in his career. The best thing I can say about Mitch is that he knows he still has a lot to learn. He is the kind of player who will try to improve as his career continues.”
“Richmond is an outstanding rookie,” former Portland coach Mike Schuler said. “When Nellis says he’s like Sidney Moncrief, no higher compliment can be paid.”
While most of the rookies getting significant playing time logically come from weak teams, a few first-year players are joining Richmond in doing well for winning clubs.
Chief among these is Philadelphia’s Hersey Hawkins, who has shored up the woefully weak shooting guard position for the 76ers, averaging 15.4.
Rod Strickland quickly established himself as Mark Jackson’s backup at point guard for the Atlantic Division-leading New York Knicks. It’s a role that gives him limited playing time, but he has made the most of it, averaging 28 points and 11 assists per 48 minutes.
“Rod has the quickest hands I’ve seen on the press in a long time,” Knicks coach Rick Pitino said. “He reminds me of Michael Jordan the way he plays the passing lanes.”
Derrick Chievous had a big first month for Houston, averaging 13.2 points, with highs of 27 and 25, but has tailed off since then as Rockets coach Don Chaney discovered that his defensive play was “atrocious.”
On the losing side of the standings, a couple of rookies have played well all season for weak teams.
Willie Anderson of San Antonio, another Olympian, is averaging 18 points and is the leading rookie scorer after Richmond. The Clippers’ Smith, despite injuries, is averaging 15.5.
A few other rookies thrived as their playing time and confidence increased for teams who realized they had nothing to lose by developing young players.
Rik Smits, the No. 2 pick by Indiana, averaged 8.2 points in Indiana’s first 30 games and 14.7 since Dick Versace took over as coach on Jan. 5.
“Smits has gone from a rookie to a legitimate center,” Pitino said.
“When I drafted Rik, I really didn’t know what to expect,” Pacers General Manager Donnie Walsh. “Now I know he’s really going to be something special.”
New Jersey’s Chris Morris, the No. 4 pick in the 1988 draft, was averaging 9.8 points as a backup forward for the first half of the season. In his first 16 games after Jan. 29, he was scoring at a 19.8 clip, including a season-high 30 points on Wednesday night against Washington.
“Any pick from one to about six, you expect to come in and make a difference,” the Nets’ Roy Hinson said. “And he’s come in and is making a difference.”
Not surprisingly, rookies get plenty of chance to develop on expansion teams, especially the Miami Heat, who won four games in the first half of the season, then needed only 11 games to win four more times.
Of the five Miami players with the most minutes, three of them are rookies, Kevin Edwards, Rony Seikaly and Grant Long.
“Our rookies played an important role earlier, but they’re really stepping forward now,” Coach Ron Rothstein said. “They’re getting more confident.”
Edwards, who along with Seikaly was drafted in the first round, averaged 22.8 points in a recent seven-game stretch.
Long, a second-rounder from Eastern Michigan, had 30 points and 10 rebounds in Miami’s upset victory over Atlanta on Feb. 19 and scored 20 more in a 20-point win over the Clippers five days later.
Seikaly, the Heat’s top pick, is the team’s No. 3 scorer behind Edwards and veteran Rory Sparrow.
On Charlotte, the other expansion team, the top rookie is first-round pick Rex Chapman, who is shooting less than 40 percent from the field, but is the No. 2 scorer on the team behind Kelly Tripucka.
With the Boston Celtics struggling with injuries and trying to get back to the .500 mark, Coach Jimmy Rodgers put rookie Brian Shaw into the starting lineup.
Shaw responded with double-figure assist games four times in February and scored a career-high 31 points on Feb. 17 against Phoenix.
Ledell Eackles, a second-round pick of the Washington Bullets, replaced the injured Jeff Malone last Monday night and scored 25 points in an upset at Houston.