Having seen the bright lights of Syracuse, New York, Carmelo Anthony thinks Denver is "a slow town." But there's nothing slow about the way long-suffering Nuggets fans are taking the smiling nineteen-year-old rookie into their hearts. "I don't know about LeBron James," season-ticket holder Vince Shaefer said after the Nugs' gritty opening-night win over NBA champion San Antonio. "But the [draft day] Ping-Pong balls probably bounced right for the Nuggets. This kid here is probably the rookie of the year. And he could be the start of something good."
Before he ever shot a jumper in a game that counts, this kid here got himself programmed into a video game, announced that he'll average twenty points a night in his first season and put his name on a candy bar. LeBron may be the chalk (and subject of all the talk), but basketball types like Charles Barkley, Steve Kerr and Doug Collins picked Anthony, a 6'8" small forward, as their pre-season top rookie, and fans quickly dubbed the gold trim on the Nuggets' new white and baby-blue uniforms "'Melo Yellow" in honor of the teenager who is supposed to lift an entire franchise from the slough of despond. Little matter that last time anyone looked, the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings and New Jersey Nets were still in the league, or that the bottom-feeding Nuggets haven't been to the playoffs in nine years. With Carmelo Anthony on the floor, the sunny optimists who packed the Pepsi Center on opening night had reason to believe coach Jeff Bzdelik's boast that his reconstituted, run-run-run Nuggets are suddenly post-season material. Of course, the Chicago Cubs may also win the World Series some day; Rush Limbaugh could be in line to be George W's new drug czar; and Kobe Bryant's probably made a dinner date for Saturday night at the Cordillera.
Said another way, belief is an easy thing when the season is three games old and Marcus Camby hasn't yet sprained a knee on his way to the men's room.
Fifteen, twenty games from now, Carmelo Anthony will probably learn just how slow a town Denver really is -- especially when it comes to filling a 17,000-seat basketball arena. By mid-season, Rocky the Mountain Lion, with that little gold lightning bolt shooting out of his butt, just might be the team's biggest drawing card. But what the hell. Last year's Nuggets were probably the worst offensive team in the history of the NBA, winning just seventeen games, and if -- as many predict -- they can double that total this year, then the start of 'Melo Era will be a success. Whaddya think? Wouldn't thirty wins look pretty good?
"He doesn't play like a rookie," Bzdelik says of his number-three draft pick. "He's a lot more mature out there than people expected, and he's got a gift for drawing fouls. He's gotten into the pro game right away."
In last Wednesday's 80-72 win against the Spurs, Anthony initially looked tight, and in the end, he scored only twelve points. He had eighteen points in a loss at Houston, but on Saturday night he broke out with a team-leading 23 in a 109-88 thrashing of Sacramento.
"LeBron James [the Cleveland Cavaliers' eighteen-year-old phenom, aka "King James"] may turn out to be the next great player," the ever-vocal Barkley said in a recent league survey, "but right now Carmelo is a better shooter, a better scorer, and he's played against better competition. He's more prepared right now to play in the NBA." Certainly, he showed that in the Nuggets' 5-3 exhibition season. With just one year of play at national champion Syracuse behind him, Anthony averaged 17.4 points in the preseason while high school graduate James struggled. As fate would have it, the two teenagers were scheduled to match up Wednesday, November 5, in Cleveland.
Of course, the Nuggets still have to put four other guys out there on the floor, and Denver's season will rise or fall with them as they run the court in Bzdelik's up-tempo offense. Last year's only reliable scorer, Juwan Howard, has escaped to Orlando, but the Nuggets' back court has been dramatically upgraded with the addition of three second-tier free agents: Andre Miller, Jon Barry and ex-Golden State Warrior Earl Boykins, the 5'5" flea whose gift for inspiration may outrank even his irksome ability to scoot under the NBA's redwoods. For Miller, who spent a gruesome year in purgatory with the godawful Los Angeles Clippers (and played down to their level), this new Nuggets gig could represent a renewal. A beautiful passer with a nice pull-up jumper, the 6'2" point guard has gotten early co-billing with Anthony as the gold in the Nuggets attack, and if he returns to the cool, pinpoint-passing form he showed with Cleveland two years ago, the Miller-Anthony tandem just might remind Western Conference fans of, dare we say it, the Stockton-Malone years in Salt Lake City. Twelve-year veteran Barry, late of the Detroit Pistons, is a dead-eye shooter (what else would you expect of Rick Barry's son?), something the Nugs lacked last season. Shooting guard Voshon Lenard, a Toronto Raptor last year, should also put points on the board.
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In the front court, the power forward formerly known as Nenê Hilario has, like the soccer stars in his native Brazil, dropped his last name. He would do well to also drop his penchant for committing fouls and missing outside shots. At 6'11", he's neither forward nor center (the Pepsi Center announcer stretches him out to an even seven feet), but his defensive skills are awesome. Meanwhile, backup forward Nikoloz Tskitshvili -- "Skita" to his pals -- has added thirty pounds of muscle bulk in the off-season (he's now a 243-pound seven-footer), but the shy Russian could use a major infusion of confidence to go along with his sheer athletic ability. Meanwhile, everyone in the building waits for the moment when a cool breeze or a low-flying paper airplane knocks Camby out of action once again. He's a brilliant shot blocker and sterling rebounder (he pulled down twenty boards in the season opener), but he's missed nineteen-plus games in six of his seven seasons in the league, and each of the last two years, he's played just 29 games. The bad rap on him is he won't play with even a minor ding. But if the big guy immerses himself in holy water and somehow goes the distance this year, the Nuggets could surprise a few slumbering giants. Last season, after all, Denver finished second in forcing turnovers, and a healthy, happy Camby just might be the key to basketball respectability at 5,280 feet.
In the end, though, this is Carmelo Anthony's team -- probably for years to come. Cocky and gifted, he's the young star Denver's beleaguered fans have yearned for since the Dan Issel-Alex English days, and unless something goes terribly wrong -- he opts for water-skiing, say, or checks into a monastery -- he will be the rock on which a long-troubled franchise is at last rebuilt. Opening-night fan Sherry Cavanaugh said it one way: "This is the guy we've been waiting for, the one who finally gets it done." 'Melo's coach at Syracuse, Jim Boeheim, who had the star in his galaxy for just one championship season, takes stock another way: "Carmelo was a once-in-a-lifetime player for any coach -- a Magic Johnson, maybe even better. But he was so obviously ready to move on by the end [of his freshman year] that the discussion about leaving didn't last more than a few seconds. Another season would probably have been anticlimactic."
Thus does optimism finally return to the hearts and souls of the Nuggets faithful, all praying that the hoops pace quickens in a slow town.