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THE NBA / MARK HEISLER : Rankings Show These Kids Can Play

We’re so used to describing today’s young players in terms of their potential for mayhem, we’ve neglected to point out what wonderful players they are.

For better and/or worse, they’re taking over.

The following ranking was put together with the aid of a locally based scout and one personnel director from the East and West conferences. Ages are noted for players 26 and under.

CENTERS

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1. Shaquille O’Neal (22). Orlando Magic. Voters split between Shaq, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon--but there isn’t much doubt who’ll be the man in a year or two. Despite the Shaq-bashing, he has continued to improve every season.

Scout: “He’s the most unstoppable player of the lot. People used to criticize him for dunking. You’ve got to be kidding. The important thing is he can get himself in position to dunk.”

2. Robinson, San Antonio Spurs. Has really come on the last two seasons, but woeful supporting casts kept him out of the spotlight.

3. Olajuwon, Houston Rockets. MVP of the ’93-94 season and finals, defensive player of the year. People barely notice he’s really 6-10.

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4. Patrick Ewing, New York Knicks. Used to be a peer of the top three, but he’s wearing down. Best moves are on the perimeter. Still a warrior.

5. Alonzo Mourning (24), Charlotte Hornets. Hot on Patrick’s heels. Another guy who, at 6-9, is really power-forward size, but what a heart.

6. Vlade Divac (turns 26 in February), Lakers. Hard to believe he has been around so long, is still so young and has risen so high. Now a top-five shot-blocker. Intensity still waxes and wanes. Not as physical as the big five; with his slender body and all-around game, should be a forward.

7. Dikembe Mutombo, Denver Nuggets. As good as anyone on defense, no stiff on offense when they bother to throw him the ball. Complains a lot but is actually a nice guy.

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8. Rik Smits, Indiana Pacers. At 7-4, has a great touch, gives better players a hard time. No defender, though.

9. Rony Seikaly, Golden State Warriors. Lost in Golden State.

10. Olden Polynice, Sacramento Kings. Wacky, poses a minimal threat on offense but has become a real banger and rebounder.

Injured: Brad Daugherty, Cleveland Cavaliers.

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Comers: Boston Celtic rookie Eric Montross (23), who isn’t the excruciatingly long-term project people feared; Philadelphia 76er sophomore Shawn Bradley (22), who is an excruciatingly long-term project.

POWER FORWARDS

1. Karl Malone, Utah Jazz. So dominant, the next guy on the list should be No. 3.

2. Shawn Kemp (25), Seattle SuperSonics. Cat-quick but doesn’t dominate. At his stage of development, he may be hurt by George Karl’s Carolina-style offense in which he gets 12 shots a game.

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3. Horace Grant, Magic. The perfect power forward. Excels at the dirty work, is a wonderful complement on offense, running the floor, offensive rebounding, spotting up for jumpers. When he is taken care of, as he is in Orlando but wasn’t in Chicago, he never complains. The biggest reason for the Magic’s seamless transition.

4. Larry Johnson, Hornets (25). Getting back to being LJ.

5. Tyrone Hill, Cavaliers (26). Another one who got away from Don Nelson, who traded him to Cleveland for cap room for Chris Webber. Has become a rebounding tiger.

6. Otis Thorpe, Houston Rockets. Good post player and rebounder, works on defense. Free agent alert: His contract is up at the end of the season.

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7. Vin Baker (23), Milwaukee Bucks. Very nice tab as the No. 8 pick in 1993. Drafted after Calbert Cheaney and Rodney Rogers from a little school (Hartford), he’s a 6-11 player with skills.

8. Kevin Willis, Miami Heat. Averages 18 points and 11 rebounds but people shy away because of his rockhead rep. It’s a shame he isn’t on a decent team because he brings it every night.

9. Derrick Coleman (8), New Jersey Nets. Just kidding. He’s really 27, he only acts younger. He belongs much higher up the list--like No. 2--but his antics have turned everyone off and our panel had fun marking him down.

Scout: “Everybody says, ‘He’s so talented.’ Hey, talented guys make shots. What’s he shooting?”

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Answer: 41%.

10. Webber (21), Washington Bullets. The panel wasn’t crazy about him, either, after his nuke job on the Warriors.

Scout: “I’m not a big Webber fan. He puts up a lot of numbers, but he doesn’t have a game yet. Shaq has a repertoire. Where’s Webber’s repertoire?”

On the other hand, you have to watch out for someone who can average 18 points, nine rebounds and four assists on raw ability.

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Injured: Charles Oakley, Knicks.

Coming fast: Pacer Buck Williams clone Dale Davis (25); King rookie Brian Grant (22), considered a young Thorpe--or better.

Other comers: Pacer reserve Antonio Davis, now injured; Bullet rookie Juwan Howard (22); Celtic import Dino Radja; Maverick salvage project Popeye Jones (24). Also (I never, ever thought I’d say this), Elden Campbell (26), Lakers, who still isn’t the rebounder he should be but has become a force in the post.

Notable omission: Christian Laettner (25). Despite a pouty attitude, he cares and plays hard but his numbers are down. Might be lost with the woeful Timberwolves. “He’s a decent scorer,” says the scout, “but for the third guy picked (in ’92, behind Shaq and Mourning, ahead of Jimmy Jackson), he’s got to be better than that.”

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SMALL FORWARDS

1. Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls. Remember when he disgraced himself, taking himself out? So many people have done it since, it’s hard to remember that far back.

2. Charles Barkley, Phoenix Suns. Actually, he doesn’t have a position. He just goes where he wants and does what he wants.

3. Jamal Mashburn (22), Mavericks. A 6-7, 240-pound scoring machine who overpowers little guys and zips past big ones. No defender or rebounder, which drove Quinn Buckner crazy. Dick Motta looks at it this way: Who cares?

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4. Detlef Schrempf, SuperSonics. Managed to get comfortable with his 12 shots a game. Went back to shooting three-pointers recently and is hitting a molten 56%.

5. Cedric Ceballos (25), Lakers. Out of nowhere and he’s young.

6. Cliff Robinson, Portland Trail Blazers. He seemed to like it better when Clyde Drexler was out and it was his team.

7. Danny Manning, Suns. Chilling out as a secondary option while Barkley takes his last hurrah.

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8. Grant Hill (23), Detroit Pistons. Has things to work on--shooting--but has a great head. Should be No. 1 on this list before very long.

9. Toni Kukoc, Bulls (26). Another quantum leap that’s still in progress.

10. Glenn Robinson (22), Bucks. He’s shooting 40% and leading the league in turnovers but has big-time skills. Having trouble adjusting to the cold world outside the state of Indiana, but his time is coming.

Comers: Timberwolves rookie Donyell Marshall (21) and Hornet sophomore Scott Burrell (24).

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Notable omissions: Tom Gugliotta (25), out of place in Golden State, and Clarence Weatherspoon (24), struggling after running up big numbers in garbage games as a power forward.

SHOOTING GUARDS

1. Mitch Richmond, Kings. Has never stopped grinding despite the obscurity.

2. Reggie Miller, Pacers. Better all-around player, but Larry Brown wants to see the Reggie of Game 5 against the Knicks more often.

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3. Drexler, Trail Blazers. Healthy again and back from the garbage heap.

4. Jackson (24), Mavericks. Hard-nosed, physical player, on his way to No. 1.

Scout: “I thought he’d be a career 17-point scorer and he’s averaging 27--and he still doesn’t shoot that well. Excellent post-up player.”

5. Jeff Hornacek, Jazz. Mr. Efficiency: shoots much better than 50%, makes threes, backs up at the point.

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6. Nick Anderson, Magic (26). Converted forward who became a three-point threat to complement Shaq.

7. Dan Majerle, Suns. Regressed last season when he anchored himself to the three-point line, now ventures inside again.

8. Latrell Sprewell (24), Warriors. Last season’s All-NBA first-teamer is on cruise control out of respect for his traded friends.

9. Stacey Augmon, Atlanta Hawks (26). Making huge strides, literally and figuratively. Still can’t shoot, but a great finisher.

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10. Dell Curry, Hornets. Such a deadeye, he makes the list coming off the bench.

Comers: Laker rookie Eddie Jones (23), Sun rookie Wesley Person (23), Timberwolves sophomore Isaiah Rider (23) and Spur journeyman Vinny Del Negro.

Notable omissions: Kendall Gill (26), SuperSonics, chained to Karl’s doghouse. Hawk reserve Steve Smith (25), somehow named to Dream Team II.

POINT GUARDS

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1. John Stockton, Jazz. Still the king.

2. Penny Hardaway (22), Magic. Soon, the king.

His scoring average has jumped seven points to 23. His shooting percentage has jumped five points to 52%. Posts up, shoots threes (38%), top five in assists, top 10 in steals, good straight-up defender.

“He can truly be in the Magic class,” says the scout. “He has that drive. He wants to be good. He’s got the whole package. He’s got the athleticism. What can’t he do?”

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3. Mark Price, Cavaliers. Making almost 50% of his threes.

4. Gary Payton, SuperSonics (26). Still has a lot of punk in him, but is growing up in spite of himself.

5. Rod Strickland, Trail Blazers. Always penetrated at will, finally developing shooting range.

6. Tim Hardaway, Warriors. Reputation notwithstanding, he’s off his game in this rehab year after knee surgery.

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7. Nick Van Exel, Lakers (23). He’s 170 pounds of attitude but backed it up after embarrassing himself at Portland. Has more three-pointers than Price and is making a big-time 42% of them. If he can listen, learn and develop a mid-range game, we’re talking big star.

8. Dana Barros, 76ers. Mega-move. Four years as No. 4 guard in Seattle, traded twice two summers ago, now has an unreal “true” shooting percentage (accounting for the extra point he gets on made threes) of 62%. Can be a free agent this summer.

9. Mookie Blaylock, Hawks. Doesn’t work out in summer, always starts slowly.

10. Kenny Anderson, Nets (24). His shooting is going the wrong way: 43% two seasons ago, 42% last season, 40% this season.

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Injured: Kevin Johnson, Suns. Still great, but this will be the third season in a row he hasn’t played 70 games.

Comers: Sun journeyman Eliot Perry (25), the former Clipper, Trail Blazer, Hornet, La Crosse Catbird and Grand Rapid Hoop; Spur journeyman Avery Johnson.


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