As he hears Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders call his name to enter the game, Stephon Marbury rips off his sweats and half trots to the scorers table. And, while coming off the bench is an odd experience, he seems fine as he walks onto the court. But, from the first time he touches the ball, it's clear that this is not the real Stephon Marbury.
The real Stephon Marbury would have gotten by his man with a flashy stutter-step dribble, either creating a layup for a cutting teammate, or an open jump shot for himself. The version on the USAir Arena court Monday against the Washington Bullets might have difficulty getting past lumbering Gheorghe Muresan.
"It's been frustrating, I just can't explain it," says Marbury, the fourth pick in this year's draft. "To not be able to be out on the court like you want to be, to not be able to do the things you know you're able to do "
And his voice trails off as he shakes his head. But, no, these are not the frustrating words of a 19-year-old attempting to make a difficult transition to the NBA as a rookie guard with the Timberwolves. They are the words of frustration from a player who has yet to recover from an ankle injury that has limited him to six games this season.
But before you pencil in the name of Allen Iverson as the league's Rookie of the Year -- as writers in Philadelphia have done -- it's best to remember that the player who is probably the best point guard among NBA rookies, has yet to play a completely healthy game in the NBA.
"Right now, I can't worry about what other people do," said Marbury, when asked about all the attention focused on Iverson. "I just wish that I can be 100 percent, that people can see me play at 100 percent. It just seems right now that it's going to take some time."
For a franchise that has never won more than 29 games in a season in its eight-year history, the Timberwolves can well afford to wait. They are rebuilding with youth revolving around 26-year-old forward Tom Gugliotta (acquired in 1995 in a trade with Golden State), 20-year-old Kevin Garnett (drafted out of high school with the fifth pick in 1995) and Marbury.
Acquiring a point guard was the biggest concern for the Timberwolves going into the 1996 draft, but the problem was there were only two impact point guards available (Iverson and Marbury), and Minnesota didn't appear to have a shot at either with the fifth pick. The Timberwolves would wind up selecting Ray Allen. But they traded him and a future first-round pick to Milwaukee for the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Marbury, who had a standout freshman year at Georgia Tech.
"There's no question about the things he can do, and I'm just impressed with his ability to take what the defense gives him," said Saunders. "He's still learning the game, and all he is going to do is get better."
Even with his injury, Marbury's talent is evident. As his ankle got loose in the loss to the Bullets on Monday, Marbury demonstrated his ability to penetrate and throw precision passes that his unprepared teammates several times bobbled. Marbury also has good shooting range, although he's hitting 36.2 percent from the field.
His teammates have seen enough of Marbury to know that, once healthy, the Timberwolves will at least be a competitive team.
"His ability level is unbelievable. He has everything: a jumper, passing, quickness and he's also a good defender," Gugliotta said. "It's just a matter of time before he starts to feel comfortable with the team. He's got to be able to get guys the ball when they're in position to score, and get better at calling plays. He's got a tough position to learn, but he's a smart kid."
And a kid who has made a swift rise to the NBA. Two years ago, Marbury -- who was once named the top sixth-grader in the nation -- was leading Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn to the New York City championship.
A year later, he was at Georgia Tech, averaging 18.9 points and leading the Yellow Jackets to the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title and the school's first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1993. He then declared himself eligible for the NBA draft, drawing the ire of critics preaching the virtues of staying in school.
"If you're good enough to adjust to this level, you're going to adjust no matter what year you come out," Marbury said. "I think it's a phobia, with people saying that if you stay longer you'll be all right.
"That's not true," Marbury added. "If it was true, then John Wallace [drafted 18th, after a solid senior season at Syracuse] would have went sooner. They tell you to stay in school, get your education and stay four years and you'll be all right. John Wallace did everything that people said he should have done, and look what happened to him."
What happened is that Wallace is now a pretty good complementary player with the New York Knicks, but is making millions less than Marbury. Meanwhile, Marbury is larger than life -- in one sense. As the front man for a new shoe and clothing line, Marbury's face is everywhere: from the huge billboard near Times Square, to the sides of buses in cities throughout the country, including Baltimore.
"It's cool," Marbury said of the billboards. "It makes you feel good, knowing how hard you worked and where you came from to reach this level. It makes me feel proud, and it makes my family and the people who love me proud."
Asked if could have imagined the billboards two years ago, while he was in high school, Marbury thought for a second. And then he laughed, shaking his head almost in disbelief.
"I could imagine playing in the NBA," he said. "But not this quick. Everything has happened real, real fast for me.
"The flying from different cities, the different hotels, it can be overwhelming a lot of times," Marbury added. "But I've been preparing for this for a long time. And I think I'm ready."
Pub Date: 11/28/96