Rookie award no sure shot even for those in the know


It opens with the theme music of "The McLaughlin Group," but the topic of discussion is not politics -- it's basketball. Specifically, the NBA's Rookie of the Year award, with members of the group raving about the skills of Washington Bullets forward Juwan Howard.

"He can do it all; he can shoot; he can rebound," raves Eleanor "Air" Clift of Newsweek. "And you should see the way he goes to his left."

Adds Clarence "Pick and Roll" Page, columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times: "Where would the Bullets be without Juwan Howard?"

Give the Bullets credit for an impressive campaign -- a campaign that appears to be all for naught.

Tom Enlund of the Milwaukee Journal recently conducted an informal poll of media members who will vote for the award and found that Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill had the edge over Milwaukee Bucks forward Glenn Robinson.

Another poll of 20 basketball executives, conducted by the Dallas Morning News, had Dallas Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd ahead of Robinson and Hill. The executives were asked to rate the rookies from one to three, with three points reflecting a first-place vote. Kidd had 44 points, Hill 36 and Robinson 31.

"[Kidd's] Rookie of the Year in my mind," Indiana coach Larry Brown told the Morning News. "I think you could give it to Grant and not have a problem or Glenn Robinson and not have a problem. But Jason's as good a player as there is in this league."

What has been impressive is how Kidd has changed the fortunes of a Dallas team that had been the laughingstock of the league the past two seasons (13-69 last season). The Mavericks are under .500, but are just 2 1/2 games behind the Denver Nuggets for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Milwaukee is 1 1/2 games behind the Boston Celtics for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference, and Detroit is pretty much out of the race.

Unfortunately for Kidd, the vote is in the hands of 105 media members who have to return their ballots by the April 21 deadline. The publicity surrounding Hill might be hard to overcome, but the Mavericks -- who have sent out a promotional tape of Kidd, in addition to Jason Kidd masks to voting media members -- are hoping Kidd's late surge will help.

Last Wednesday, Kidd suffered from spasms in the left side of his neck, but still played and recorded his first career triple-double with 19 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers (it was the first triple-double by a rookie this season). It was "Jason Kidd Night" at Reunion Arena, with all fans receiving the cut-out masks.

"I don't know how much it's going to make a dent in Grant Hill's certificate, or trophy," Kidd said after his triple-double. "But, hopefully, it'll hold the people up in voting until the end of the month, the deadline."

Smits pacing Indiana

As much as Rik Smits has developed in his seven years in the NBA, one would imagine the popularity of the Holland-born player in Europe would have soared.

Guess again.

"I went back after the playoffs [last season], and nobody recognized me," Smits said. "Basketball is not real big there. I could walk the streets and not be recognized by a single person."

That is hardly the case here, where Smits has found himself a starring role on an Indiana Pacers team that, with Sunday's 97-68 win over the Charlotte Hornets, moved a step closer to clinching its first Central Division title.

Reggie Miller is the star, but Smits has more than held his own in the middle, averaging 17.9 points and 7.6 rebounds (both career bests) and joining the elite group of quality centers.

"My first two years were good," said Smits, who was the second pick overall in the 1988 draft out of tiny Marist. "There was never any doubt in my mind that I belonged."

There was no better example than the first round of the playoffs last season, when Smits helped make Shaquille O'Neal disappear. O'Neal averaged 20.7 points and shot 51.1 percent (he was at 29.3 and 55.4 in the regular season) as the Pacers swept the Magic in three games.

Indiana is one of just two teams that lead the Magic in a season series, carrying a 2-1 edge (the Seattle SuperSonics swept Orlando, 2-0). The Pacers will end the season April 21 at home against the Magic.

"We just match up well with them," Smits said. "We had some success in the playoffs, and it carried over into this season."

Which could help if the two teams meet in the Eastern finals.

"I like to think we're good enough to get to the NBA Finals," Smits said. "If we play the way we're capable of, we can play with anybody."

Around the league

The Miami Heat is growing tired of Kevin Willis, acquired in a trade earlier this season from the Atlanta Hawks. Last week, Willis declined to participate in a four-on-four scrimmage, which cost him his starting job for a game. Earlier this season, Willis was suspended for one game for failure to maintain his rehabilitation schedule for a lower-back strain. . . . Michael Jordan has hit 29 of 86 shots (33.7 percent) at the United Center. "I hate this building right now," Jordan said. "I'm so sentimental with the other building [Chicago Stadium]. I think I just have to spend a little extra time down here just to make this my home." . . . Utah Jazz center Felton Spencer recently had a cast removed that he had worn since tearing his Achilles' tendon earlier this season. Several days later, while carrying a bucket of ice, he lost his balance and partially tore the tendon again, requiring surgery.

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