Baker shows right stuff from center


MILWAUKEE -- There is trial by fire, and then there is trial by acetylene torch. The average NBA rookie experiences the former, Vin Baker the latter.

Baker, the former University of Hartford phenomenon, was projected as a small forward when he was taken with the eighth pick in last year's draft by the Milwaukee Bucks. Some scouts even fancied Baker, an athletic sort, to be a 6-foot-11 shooting guard.

So what do the Bucks do with him?

Ultimately, coach Mike Dunleavy would like Baker to play small forward. Mostly, Baker has played power forward.

Right now, Baker's a center.

Since the Bucks traded Frank Brickowski to the Charlotte Hornets last month, Baker has found himself anchored in the pivot, face-to-face with Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal and, most recently, Patrick Ewing. These are the NBA's inside-the-arc welders. But they haven't been able to burn Baker.

While media types focus on Golden State's Chris Webber and Orlando's Anfernee Hardaway in the race for rookie of the year, Baker might be considered for the most improved award -- if it were based on one season.

Baker's first-year progress has been remarkable, no matter his position. Consider: Through the first month of the season, Baker was averaging 6.9 points and 4.4 rebounds and shooting 38.8 percent from the field. By the end of last week, he was averaging 12.7 points and 7.3 rebounds and shooting a touch less than 50 percent.

He has improved every month. Through eight games in March, Baker has averaged 20 points, nearly eight rebounds, more than four assists and two blocks. And he has been playing out of position at center.

"He bangs around in there, and he's pretty quick," Ewing said. "He's going to be a good player."

Ewing got a close look at Baker at Madison Square Garden Thursday night, when he and the Knicks beat up on Baker's Bucks, 105-83. Ewing had 26 points, 13 rebounds and three blocked shots. Baker finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.

It is safe to say Baker made an impression.

In the first quarter, Baker rejected a Ewing jumper. That happens about once every space shuttle mission. In the third quarter, Baker dribbled coast-to-coast, went behind his back at the free-throw line and threaded a no-look pass to a teammate for an easy basket.

By the way, Baker was playing with 15 stitches between the third and fourth fingers on his left hand. The stitches were implanted just two days before, after Baker just about ripped the hand in half in a collision with Miami Heat center Rony Seikaly.

Baker managed with a mummified left hand against Ewing. He rebounded with one hand, tipping the ball to himself. On offense, Baker faced double-teams and dealt with them. "When you get double-teamed in the post on every catch, that's a pretty good sign of respect in this league," said Bucks center Mike Gminski, a 14-year veteran.

"When they get set with a legitimate center and can move him over to the [power forward], he's going to be a very talented player for them," Knicks Coach Pat Riley said. "He's got a lot of potential. He's very, very quick in the post. They've got themselves a nice draft choice."

Indiana Pacers Coach Larry Brown said Baker is "as good as any rookie in the league, and I'm not being disrespectful to rookies like Webber and Hardaway."

Baker is still Vinny, the choirboy (no kidding) from Old Saybrook. "He has been playing great," said Bucks guard Eric Murdock, "but to talk to him, you would never know it."

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