Trimmed-down, grown-up Kaman comes into his own

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Peeking through Chris Kaman's locker, pinned behind a crisp jersey, is a picture of a smiling Borat.

Kaman isn't sure how or when the picture of the Sacha Baron Cohen character arrived. He saw the movie, thought it sometimes crude, sometimes funny. The picture hangs, so it must serve some purpose.

And that's Kaman, 7 feet and a slimmed-down 255 pounds of go-with-the-flow persona.

In many ways, Kaman, 25, is still an unassuming big kid. He shoots skeet at his Michigan home, says he doesn't care for rap music but gets caught reciting a Jay-Z lyric, and responds to a question of why he has no tattoos by asking, "Have you met my parents?"

But those close to him see a stark difference in his play and maturity, a sign that the Clippers center is coming of age after a season he is quick to label frustrating -- and one in which Kaman received much of the blame when his team missed the playoffs.

Now Kaman is averaging 18.3 points and 14.0 rebounds, both nearly doubling last season's numbers. He is third in the league in rebounding behind the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard and the Denver Nuggets' Marcus Camby, and is fourth in blocked shots at 2.71.

"It's the best he's ever played, I think," Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "He's had great stretches at times before. He's just playing like he knows: 'Hey, this is the way it's supposed to be. This is what I do.' "

The league is taking notice.

"He's a dominant center so far," said Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown. "He's shown why he was a first-round pick a couple years ago. He's a big guy that's tough and very skilled. He understands his role. He doesn't try to force the issue or do too much.

"He knows what he can and can't do and he does it very well . . . [and] having that veteran cast around him really keeps his head level and keeps him headed in the right direction on both ends of the floor."

Kaman collected 26 points and 18 rebounds against the Golden State Warriors in the season opener and hasn't slowed much since, the one bright spot on a 9-15 team besieged by injuries.

"I'd rather just win," Kaman said. "If you get a loss and you score 50 points, it doesn't mean anything."

Kaman's turnaround could be from his hours in the gym over the summer, from the 20 pounds he lost and his newfound quickness. Or the extended range on his jumper.

"There's a lot of things," Kaman said. "The biggest thing is I'm getting a lot more touches. A lot more minutes, and coach is kind of letting me do my thing. Each year, I gain knowledge and I am smarter. I get in better positions. I make better plays."

Kaman, along with the longtime friends who moved west with him, drove back to Michigan immediately after last season. "I know he was disappointed last year, so I think he really wanted to come back and have a better season," said his mother, Pamela Kaman.

After staying a couple of weeks, Kaman and his friends returned to California, where Kaman's renewal had a suspicious beginning. "Who in the NBA do you know takes their 65-foot boat and rides in the boat with his guys and drives all the way to Mexico for the summer and stays down there in a boat slip for a month and a half?" Kaman asked.

Kaman, his friends and Clippers assistant coach Kim Hughes, a former NBA post player, ventured south to fish for marlin. It was a chance for Hughes, who has worked with Kaman for four years, to get him in a comfort zone. They stayed awake deep into the night, having several heart-to-hearts revolving around what Kaman needed to do this season.

"It gave me a chance to go one on one with him in a very conducive environment for him, where he is much more willing to learn," Hughes said. "He truly wants to be as good a player as he can be, and as far as I'm concerned, if a guy has that mentality, he has no limitations."

Those late-night talks, though, didn't lead to an immediate transformation.

Kaman returned to California out of shape and ready to back out of a commitment he made to Dunleavy about playing in the Las Vegas Summer League.

"I should have been in better shape," Kaman said. "I was like, 'I don't want to play.' I approached it the wrong way. I wasn't responsible about it. And I had never wanted to take anything back that I said. I'm a man of my word, so I played."

The games helped, he said, because it's hard to get those types of runs in the summer. Most area players go to UCLA for full-court games, but that's a long drive from Kaman's South Bay home, especially after his four-hour morning workouts.

Once the summer league ended, he focused on trimming down and gym workouts.

Along with strength and conditioning coach Richard Williams, Kaman developed a workout plan, heavy on meat and protein with five or six small meals a day. He lost 20 pounds, while continuing to work on his overall game.

"He spent a long time in the gym, and all the sessions were goal-orientated, where you are not just shooting shots," Hughes said. "You have to make a certain number. Some days, frankly, we spent three or four hours in the gym.

"We have a game where he has to make 10 shots in a row from the elbow, and sometimes he just couldn't do it. So he'd come in and shoot 800 shots from the elbow. But it made him into a better shooter. Now he can do it without blinking."

It was about then that the team's franchise player Elton Brand ruptured his Achilles' tendon during a workout with Kaman.

"I thought he just rolled his ankle," Kaman said. "And then when he went to the doctors, he couldn't really stand on it very good and then he texted me a couple hours later, and he's like: 'I tore it. I'm out six to eight.' I'm like, 'Six to eight weeks?' and he was like, 'No, six to eight months.' "

For Kaman, the burden of becoming the centerpiece of the Clippers' frontcourt and shrugging off last season's disappointments and living up to long-standing expectation was super-sized.

Kaman was the sixth pick in the 2003 draft, and after three seasons in the NBA, he was tabbed as one of its best young centers, someone who could score with both hands, play defense and rebound.

After the Clippers reached the second round of the 2006 playoffs, Dunleavy lobbied owner Donald T. Sterling to sign Kaman to a long-term deal. Shortly before last season, Kaman signed a five-year, $52-million contract, and many suspected that living up to that burden was why his numbers slipped so badly last season.

Kaman doesn't agree.

"People thought my contract was still messing with me, but you know what? I don't care about the money," he said. "It wasn't why I was playing the game. I've been playing basketball since I was 5. I was never getting paid until [recently]."

It's hard to pinpoint one issue that hindered Kaman's play last season, but confidence certainly played a role.

"I struggled a little bit and it wasn't what [Dunleavy] really wanted," Kaman said. "The productivity wasn't there as much as I wanted it to be. . . . Seeing shots go in and out, in and out, in and out all year, it ruins your confidence a little bit."

Kaman's big contract didn't kick in until this season, and if he keeps up this pace, it will be a bargain.

Said Pamela Kaman: "It seems like he is taking over. When you see him grab a rebound and see how much of his body is into it, it's crazy. He's just taking charge."

And when fouls go uncalled, a tug here or there unnoticed, Kaman is letting it go and focusing on the next possession.

Clippers point guard Brevin Knight said: "He's having a great year -- rebounding the heck out of the ball and keeping us alive in that way. We are going to keep riding him as long as we can."

A Western Conference advanced scout said teams try to frustrate Kaman in the first quarter, hoping he becomes less of a factor.

"We have always felt that Chris was a very dangerous offensive player that could really put up good numbers if he was able to get a good start," the scout said. "Chris' performance has always seemed to correlate directly to his confidence, which I feel is why he has been inconsistent at times.

"The key will be if he can continue to play this way consistently for an entire season. Can he prove that he is as talented as the flashes he has shown in the past and can he turn his four-point, three-rebound nights of the past into 11-point, eight-rebound nights?"

So far, he has. And the reason may be as simple as Kaman is getting more touches and coming into his own as a player and a person.

"It's like Chinese water torture," Dunleavy said. "Keep hitting him in the head with the same stuff, and at some point it's going to make sense."

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