|02-15-2006, 12:21 PM||#1|
Join Date: Sep 2003
Location: Saratoga, NY
Anthony catching back up with draft class
By Theresa Smith, Special for USA TODAY
DENVER — Carmelo Anthony could only watch last season as NBA draft classmates LeBron James and Dwyane Wade played in the All-Star Game on his home court.
Carmelo Anthony leads this year's list of All-Star snubs.
By Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY
That spurred the Denver Nuggets forward to get his act together — on and off the court.
"I was sitting courtside, watching players out there that I go up against every day, knowing that I am supposed to be out there," Anthony said firmly. "I took that and motivated myself on that."
The Nuggets' first-round elimination from the playoffs last season by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs added fodder to his motivational memory bank; Anthony vowed to train all summer.
A transforming year later, his Nuggets (28-25) lead the Northwest Division. His game, including a scoring average of 25.9 points a game, is All-Star caliber — but All-Star status again has eluded him. This time, he is the only player among the league's top 10 scorers not in Sunday's game in Houston.
"I don't have a choice but to take it and move on," he says of not making the Western Conference team. "I'll keep doing what I'm doing on the court, continue playing, helping my team win. Because at the end of the day, being an All-Star is great, a midseason accolade, but winning is most important. Going deep in the playoffs, that's what's most important."
Anthony's understanding of being the odd man out in a crowded field of talented forwards in the West and the way he has handled it publicly — with professionalism rather than self-pity — are positive signs for Nuggets coach George Karl.
"The kid's growing up right in front of us," Karl says. "And it's a lot of fun to watch and a lot of fun to be part of."
Last season, defensive lapses and his fade-away jump shot game were not All-Star caliber. Anthony had rarely gotten off the bench during the 2004 Athens Olympics because of disagreements with coach Larry Brown. His image was further tarnished by a marijuana possession charge that later was dismissed and by his appearance in an underground DVD that glorified drug use.
Through Monday, Anthony ranks seventh in the NBA in scoring (he's averaging five points per game more than last season). He also is averaging 9.94 free throw attempts a game, compared to 7.64 a game last season, and has scored at least 30 points in 15 games, including four of 40 or more.
Guided by Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess, a thickly muscled, high-energy guru, Anthony slowly reduced his body fat to 8% on his 6-8 frame.
As his back, abdominals and shoulders strengthened, Anthony hit the scales at 228 pounds — about 17 pounds less than last season and the weight he carried as a Syracuse freshman, leading the Orangemen to the 2003 NCAA title and claiming most outstanding player honors.
With Hess' irrepressible encouragement, Anthony pumped iron every other day and ran five to six days a week, including the 69 rows of Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a popular landmark west of Denver.
He hired a personal assistant who doubled as a chef, replacing his penchant for fatty foods with a mix of protein and carbohydrates recommended by Hess.
Even when Anthony traveled, he left nothing to chance. "In the summertime, I can get carried away, eating anything. I call Steve and say, 'What's on the diet for today, what can I eat?' "
Hess was surprised by the consistency of Anthony's efforts and non-plused by Anthony's initial reactions. "We make a joke about it," Hess said. "I ask him to do it, and he'll be like, 'No.' But he'll end up doing it.
"If he has a belief in you, he'll do the things you ask him to do. When you don't think he's listening, he does what you've asked."
George Karl influence
Anthony's on-court progress has been obvious under Karl, who took over Jan. 27, 2005, with a long-term contract, a symbolic hammer that his lame-duck predecessor Jeff Bzdelik lacked.
Karl strove to convince Anthony to set up closer to the basket for higher-percentage shots and the opportunity to draw fouls, and he worked to detail the principles of pick-and-roll and help defense.
"You know he had a lot of off-the-court issues last year that slowed his progress, and I think once George got here, his game definitely blossomed," teammate Marcus Camby says of Anthony. "He's not just relying on the jumper anymore, he's taking the ball inside.
"And he's been more vocal as a leader, understanding that this is his team and we're going as far as he takes us."
Portland's Theo Ratliff can attest to Anthony's newfound explosiveness. In the late stages of a victory Feb. 4, Anthony drove left around Ruben Patterson and dunked over Ratliff, absorbing a foul as his right arm cocked high over the rim.
"He's more aggressive," says Ratliff, one of the NBA's leading shot blockers. "He's a strong, powerful kid, and he's done a tremendous job of getting stronger and playing with power instead of finesse."
The fear of Anthony's quick dribble penetration in a triumph against Dallas on Friday contributed to his career-high 10 assists, a testament to the concepts Karl espouses in reverent tones.
"I think he's respecting the game a lot better," Karl says. "His commitment to the game is 100% better."
In January, with Camby sidelined by a broken finger, Anthony shot 46.6% from the field and averaged 26.9 points, replacing his playful smile with a grim intensity.
"He's all about business, from what I've seen on film and the games we've played," Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan says.
A key encounter in the dawn of the Karl-Anthony relationship was Anthony's reaction to being benched on two occasions last spring. His body language wasn't in the Boy Scout mode, but he regained his minutes.
"In my first couple talks with Melo, the thing I realized is he listens and he wants to learn," Karl says. "Yeah, he has some of the coach-player sociological byplay; he's not a guy who's going to hang on every word you say. But I think he respects the coaching staff to the point where he knows we're going to make him better.
"We're fighting together. And so much of our game is being on the same page and being committed to the same things. That's what you're seeing often; he's taking the leadership of this team offensively. And taking little pieces of defending, little pieces of transition, getting a little better.
"Defensively, on the ball, he's got a big-time improvement," Karl says. "Off the ball, he still needs a little work."
In the playoffs last spring, the Spurs' defense collapsed on Anthony in tightly contested Game 3 and Game 4 losses and he was unable to score or pass.
Eight months later, he's gaining renown for clutch play. Jan. 8 against Houston and two days later against Phoenix, he made game-winning jumpers, the latter in triple overtime, capping a 43-point performance. A driving dunk in a win vs. Cleveland on Jan. 18 broke a tie with 21.9 seconds to go.
Karl, ever the purist, tracks the key assists instead. "I've enjoyed his decisions when he's passed it for open shots," Karl said. "Passing will actually give him more freedom than forcing. I think he's understanding that."