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Rating the NBA’s Class of ’91

From Associated Press

Larry Johnson and Dikembe Mutombo, the class of the best rookie class in more than a decade, are showing they have what it takes to be NBA stars.

Just ask them.

“My goal is to dominate,” Mutombo said, and by the relative standards of the Denver Nuggets, the 7-foot-2 rookie has dominated.

Johnson also has the cocky self-confidence that characterizes many NBA superstars.

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“There’s no pressure on me because I know how to play,” Johnson said. “I knew what to expect. I knew all about how physical it is. I felt comfortable from the start.

After a slow start, Johnson is coming on very strong in the Rookie of the Year race, averaging 17 points and 12 rebounds. Fears that he was too short at 6-5 to play inside in the NBA have disappeared.

“The guy’s automatic when you get him the ball 6 feet from the basket,” Hornets coach Allan Bristow said of his 250-pound forward. “We don’t have any reservations with who we got (with the No. 1 pick). If we had it to do over again, we’d do the same thing.”

In his meeting with Larry Bird on Nov. 16, Johnson had 27 points and 15 rebounds to 25 points and 11 rebounds for Bird, who had eight assists compared to one for the rookie.

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“He’s strong, quick and a great team player,” Bird said of Johnson. “He takes his time and when it’s his time to score, he’s there.”

Mutombo, the fourth pick in the 1991 draft, is averaging 19 points and nearly 14 rebounds. He got early season tests against two of the best veteran centers in the NBA -- Hakeem Olajuwon of Houston and San Antonio’s David Robinson. Mutombo combined for 48 points and 30 rebounds in the two games.

“David was really surprised how big and physical he was, and David has the fat lips to prove it,” Spurs coach Larry Brown said. “Mutombo plays with his hands up and when he stands behind you, it’s hard to even see the basket.”

“I can tell you one thing, his elbows are pretty sharp,” Robinson said.

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The rookie talent does not by any means stop with Mutombo and Johnson.

Billy Owens of Golden State, Steve Smith at Miami, Stacey Augmon at Atlanta, Kenny Anderson at New Jersey, Terrell Brandon at Cleveland, New York’s Greg Anthony, Dale Davis at Indiana, Victor Alexander at Golden State, Rick Fox at Boston and Robert Pack at Portland all have been impressive, although not always consistent.

Not since 1981 has the rookie class shown this kind of depth.

The 1981 class included Isiah Thomas, Buck Williams, Mark Aguirre, Rolando Blackman, Tom Chambers, Larry Nance, Kelly Tripucka, Herb Williams, Danny Schayes and Alton Lister. All but Tripucka are still in the NBA.

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In perhaps the season’s biggest irony, Golden State coach Don Nelson, notorious for his reluctance to rely on rookies, is using Owens and Alexander (No. 17) extensively and also has gotten some help from a third first-year man, Chris Gatling (No. 16).

“The No. 1 thing I look for in the draft is guys who know how to play basketball,” said Nelson, who acquired Owens in a trade for Mitch Richmond. “Larry Bird is a 10, but Billy Owens is right up there, an 8 1/2 or a 9. He was the best basketball player in the draft.”

Many people wondered if it was worth it to break up Run-TMC -- Tim Hardaway, Richmond and Chris Mullin -- to get Owens.

“We’re used to watching Tim and Chris play so well, but Billy has taken that next step and is beginning to blossom,” Nelson said.

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Owens was taken third in the draft behind Johnson and Anderson, whose late signing has hampered his early development. Nets coach Bill Fitch has alternated between being critical, sarcastic and glowing in his comments about his rookie point guard.

“Unless you know where you’re going, you can’t use your speed,” Nets coach Bill Fitch said. “But with Kenny, every once in a while, you see a glimpse.”

Fifth in the draft was Miami’s 6-7 Smith, who took over as the Heat’s point guard when Sherman Douglas became a holdout.

“Steve would rather have an assist on a good pass than score,” Heat coach Kevin Loughery said. “Not many people come into the league with that kind of attitude.”

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Doug Smith, the No. 6 pick by Dallas, also was a late signee, but has shown signs of contributing recently with four consecutive double-figure scoring games, including 17 in a victory over Miami on Dec. 10.

Macon, despite shooting less than 33 percent, starts and plays nearly 30 minutes a game no matter what his stats are.

“I’m just playing Mark as many minutes as I can to get him the NBA experience,” coach Paul Westhead said of the draft’s eighth pick. “I want to keep him on the floor.”

Augmon, No. 9, is a starter for the Hawks at shooting guard despite playing at forward at UNLV. He is also averaging 30 minutes per game while averaging 11 points.

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Brandon and Anthony, picked 11th and 12th, have settled in as backup point guards on the Cavaliers and Knicks, teams that have played very well.

Both have quickness superior to starters Mark Price and Mark Jackson, but the rookies need experience and better shot selection.

Davis, the 13th pick, has given Indiana needed rebounding muscle and occasional scoring punch as evidenced by his 19 points on 9-for-10 shooting in 17 minutes in a 141-121 rout of Houston on Nov. 29.

Rick Fox, picked 24th by Boston, is the star of the bottom of the first round. He is benefitting from the Celtics’ system of moving without the ball, which is similar to what Fox played under at North Carolina.

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“He’s been playing hard since Day 1 of training camp,” coach Chris Ford said of Fox, one of the first rookies to sign. “He makes mistakes, but one thing he doesn’t do is stop listening.”

The unquestioned star of the undrafted rookies is Portland’s Robert Pack of Southern Cal.

“You’ve got to give the young man so much credit because he came into camp and there really wasn’t much of a chance that he’d be on our team,” Trail Blazers coach Rick Adelman said. “But he just kept impressing us and earned a spot and earned minutes.”

His most impressive game came on Nov. 15 when he scored 13 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter as the Trail Blazers rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Minnesota.

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