Rookies Face Major Adjustment to NBA

HARTFORD COURANT

College basketball players go to class at specific times. They go to practice at specific times. They are told when to report to dining hall. They are not allowed jobs during the season.

Every spring, 54 are selected in the National Basketball Association draft. And their lives change radically.

First, they have to find an agent who they hope will not rip them off. Then, they have the daunting experience of signing a contract with reams of small print. With that finished, the checks begin to come in. Eyes pop. Old friends and lost uncles call. A top-10 pick can gross $20,000 to $50,000 every two weeks.

Every summer, these select players walk the streets and wonder how they are going to fit in among the best basketball players in the world. For the first time in years, they find themselves with free time. For the first time in their lives, they find themselves with the prospect of having thousands of dollars in their pockets.

"You think about that, you put yourself in their position, and you wonder what you'd do," says Tom "Satch" Sanders, who played for the Boston Celtics in the 1960s, when there weren't so many zeroes on players' paychecks. "I don't know ... maybe I'd be under control. But I don't know."

Sanders is the NBA's director of player programs. One of his undertakings is the Rookie Transition Program, a three-day seminar every September. It is compulsory for first-year players about to enter training camp.

Guests lecture on such subjects as personal finances and taxes, dealing with the media, relating to officials, motivation and physical fitness, the rigors of travel, and getting along with coaches and teammates.

"Basically, we deal with everything that falls under the umbrella of managing stress," Sanders says. "Every corporation has an orientation process, and this is ours."

Throughout the season, Sanders keeps in touch with the rookies. For good reason. As much as the lecturing helps, there are no words that can help a rookie fully prepare for a season in the NBA.

That's the message from a group of second-year players. They all have stories. And they all boil down their advice into five basic areas.

Their advice goes for every rookie, except last year's rookie of the year, Derrick Coleman. Rookies have on-court problems. Except Derrick Coleman.

Don Casey was a successful college coach before he went to the NBA. He lasted two seasons as coach of the Los Angeles Clippers -- and broke in a gang of rookies. He is an assistant with the Celtics.

"Almost every rookie is at an immediate mental disadvantage because they played in a motion or passing offense in college," Casey says. "These offenses are very easy to teach -- just pass and cut. Then they get into an NBA setting, where most teams want to put their players in a better position to get their shots without tearing all over the place. You don't want Larry Bird cutting everywhere.

"So now we've got Rick Fox making the adjustment from the motion (at North Carolina) to a semi-set offense, where he has to know where to go, when to go, how to go and why to go. This knowledge is not acquired overnight, believe me."

There are different adjustments to be made at each position. Some say point guards have the toughest transition.

"Because not only do you have to learn your position," says Celtics second-year guard Dee Brown, sidelined by a knee injury, "but you have to learn everyone else's, too."

Casey says shooting guards and small forwards have the toughest adjustments because their job descriptions are radically different from college.

"They have to learn so many new things," Casey says, "like how to come off picks, how to catch and shoot in one quick motion, how to defend more from the outside. ..."

Others say centers have the greatest adjustment, and point at the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing, who needed years to mature. The NBA rule of thumb is it takes five years for a center to reach his potential.

Coleman, a power forward, made no adjustments.

He says, "If you can play the game you can play the game, period, no matter who's out there." Rookies holding out of camp can ruin their first pro season. Except Derrick Coleman.

Rookies are waiting longer and longer to sign, holding out for more and more money and missing more and more of training camp. This is a disturbing trend for general managers. They hanker for players such as Georgetown's Dikembe Mutombo, who signed with the Denver Nuggets. He told his agent, "Get the contract done. I want to go to camp and play."

"I think agents should do whatever they have to do to get things going earlier, to get things done in the summer," Knicks vice president of player personnel Ernie Grunfeld says. "Getting the kid in camp is in the best interest of the agent, the player and the team."

It was a big holdout year for rookies. One coach surmised that point guard Kenny Anderson, who left Georgia Tech after his sophomore season and was drafted No. 2 overall by the New Jersey Nets, could "lose" half to three-quarters of his rookie year making adjustments. All because he held out of training camp.

"The more time he misses, the worse it's going to be for him," says Nets second-year guard Tate George.

"The hard part about it is they (management) have two other point guards who are playing pretty well. There's a competitiveness that's there now between me and Mookie Blaylock, and it's at a level that (Anderson) doesn't understand yet. That doesn't mean his potential isn't there, it's just that we haven't seen it yet."

According to George, the sooner Anderson begins learning, the better off he will be.

"Working out in the NBA, traveling, practicing when you don't feel like practicing, getting on a stationary bicycle on your day off -- it took a year for me to learn all this stuff, working it all out by myself," George says. "Kenny may come in and be ready, but the percentages say he may not. The percentages are better that he might come down with a little nagging injury when he does finally get here."

Then, of course, there's Coleman, who skipped camp last year before signing a five-year, $15 million contract.

"I think shape is shape," Coleman says. "Last year, I kind of played myself into shape, and I don't think it cost me much because I was rookie of the year, which speaks for itself. Now that I've been at camp this year, I'm ahead of myself already."

Rookies must beware of The Wall. Except Derrick Coleman.

The phenomenon of the "rookie wall," is unique to the NBA. Sometime near midseason -- in January or early February -- many rookies experience a sapping of their energy. As collegians, they were accustomed to playing 25-35 games, which is less than half an NBA season. It is one reason why they hit the wall. Another reason is, believe it or not, they aren't in as good a shape as the older guys.

"Once again," says Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, "our veterans came into camp in better condition than the rookies. The rookies just don't realize what it takes to get through one of these seasons."

Casey believes all rookies should listen to veterans.

"You have to really pay attention and listen to those who have been involved in the NBA who are really trying to offer help for you to polish your game," Casey says. "Don't come in with the idea that what got you here is going to keep you here. Getting here is one thing, staying here is another."

There are 82 games in a season, and there is a plan for each game. Each team has a staff of scouts, videotape coordinators and assistant coaches who break down opponents, figure out all their plays, chart tendencies for each opposing player and then boil down the information for consumption before game time.

Veterans have it easy -- they know most of their opponents. Each rookie is making a cold run.

Says Brown, "Night in, night out, there are so many good players, there's no slack-up. Don't stand still. Your skills are always there, but what you have to do is adjust every night. You have to adjust to a team, a coach, other players. Luckily, I'm with a team full of veterans. I got covered for when I messed up."

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