Dunno if this has been posted yet, but ...
Throwin' Elbows: Most unheraled rookies
By Sean Deveney - The Sporting News
Juaquin Hawkins knows the look he gets from opposing players when he struts his lanky, 6-7, 205-pound frame onto the floor, eyes almost hidden by a white headband. He wears No. 1, and he can sense opponents thinking, "1? Who's No. 1 on the Rockets?"
No. 1 is an NBA rookie, but not just any rookie. He's 29 with five years of packed-suitcase pro basketball behind him. Try to keep up here. After a career at Long Beach State, Hawkins went to the Lakers training camp in 1996. Lucious Harris and Bryon Russell were the stars for his college team, but Hawkins developed a niche as a defensive stopper, averaging just 6.9 points per game for the 49ers. His stay with the Lakers was a short.
After he was cut, he got wind of a tryout. He was not even sure what team, he just knew it was overseas. As it turns out, it was the Hung Fu Rams in Taiwan. Hawkins earned a contract and his long journey was underway.
"I did not know what I was getting into," Hawkins says. "But I wanted to play, and this was a chance to keep playing."
He returned to the U.S. the following year to play in the USBL with the Long Island Surf, then zipped back to the Far East to play for Chong Ching in the Chinese Basketball Association. Then it was back home for a yearlong stint with the Harlem Globetrotters in 1998-99, and another year with the CBA's Fort Wayne franchise. He went back abroad to play for a team in the Philippines last season, and another in Japan, where he was teammates with former UCLA star Charles O'Bannon.
Finally, Hawkins caught a break playing for the Southern California Surf in the ABA2000 last year. His coaches were former Rockets Scott Brooks and Earl Cureton. Rockets players tend to keep close ties with coach Rudy Tomjanovich, and Brooks and Cureton thought Tomjanovich might want a look at Hawkins.
"We don't get a lot of ex-players recommending guys, so we took it seriously," Tomjanovich says. "I am glad we did."
Sure enough, the same defensive intensity that Hawkins showed at Long Beach State impressed the Houston staff, and Hawkins earned a contract -- and more. The Rockets have struggled to fill the small forward spot in the lineup, so Hawkins had the opportunity to start right out of the gate.
"I don't think guys see me and go, 'Oh, a rookie,'" Hawkins explains. "I think they look at me like, 'Who is this guy?'"
During a game against Portland last week, Hawkins was brought in to defend the Blazers' Bonzi Wells. After Hawkins had shut him down on a few plays, Wells turned to him and said, "Hey, you've got a nice game."
"When you hear things like that, from established NBA players, it makes it all worth it," Hawkins says. "I went through a lot to get here, and all during that time, I was thinking about being here. Any time I was not playing basketball, I was thinking about being in the NBA. Now here I am, and to have a Bonzi Wells or a Scottie Pippen give me a compliment, it means a lot."
Now, the question is, where does a player like Hawkins fit into the Rookie of the Year race? Obviously, he is not the frontrunner, and would never be, because his contributions can't be measured in nifty statistics for the voting media. He also has gradually moved down the chain in the Rockets' rotation as Maurice Taylor and Kenny Thomas have gotten more minutes.
While only a few first-round picks have been able to pay immediate dividends -- Jay Williams, Drew Gooden, Caron Butler, Nene Hilario, Amare Stoudemire, and, to some extent, Yao Ming -- it will be those players who will get the top billing for rookie of the year. In fact, right now, I'd say that's how the race among first-rounders stacks up, with Williams slightly ahead of Gooden (0-12 has to count against him), followed by Butler, Hilario and Stoudemire.
But what about those rookies who have landed in the league from different directions, like Hawkins? There is a subset of low-profile rookies, guys who were not first-round picks, that has gotten little attention. They probably won't get any attention, either, when it comes to voting for the award, but here's our Top 5 Unheralded Rookies:
1. Lonny Baxter, Bulls. He's a second-round pick who, I think, has yet to attempt a shot from beyond five feet. But he makes the shots he takes, hustles for rebounds, is smart and plays with great enthusiasm. He is gradually sucking up the minutes of higher-profile Bulls.
2. Hawkins. His defense is terrific, and over the course of the season, the Rockets will use him to blanket opposing high-scorers. Could be a Bruce Bowen-type, with a better shot.
3. Dan Gadzuric, Bucks. Another second round pick, he runs the floor like a forward and is showing he is not the terrible offensive player he appeared to be at times at UCLA. But Milwaukee is not concerned with that. He has played pretty good defense, and gives the team a decent big man, which is saying a lot by the Bucks' recent standards.
4. Gordan Giricek, Grizzlies. Giricek is a 25-year-old rookie who was bought from the Spurs by the Grizzlies in the offseason. He's a gunner who can shoot from the perimeter and put the ball on the floor. He's not big on things like passing and defense, but he can score.
5. Pat Burke, Magic. Burke was ready to sign a contract in Spain, when the Magic gave him a call and told him they wanted him in camp. He made the team and has started eight of 13 games for Orlando. The Magic would like to see him toughen up on the boards -- 2.4 rebounds for a frontcourt player who's getting 21 minutes per game is not enough -- but Burke has done a solid job in his first NBA go-round.
Sean Deveney is a staff writer for The Sporting News. Email him at sdeveney@Sportingnews.com