11 DayZ of Z: Big Man in the Big Apple
After missing the entire first season after being drafted while recovering from foot surgery, Zydrunas Ilgauskas started his “rookie” year with a bang – dropping 16 points and 16 boards on one of the best big men in NBA history (Hakeem Olajuwon) in a season-opening loss in Houston.
After starting the Houston game, Ilgauskas came off the bench the following night in San Antonio. But that’d be his last game in a reserve role as a rookie. Big Z would go on to start every game for the remainder of the season – playing in all 82 contests as an NBA freshman.
Z’s numbers dropped off slightly after his fast start, but a week later, the Large Lithuanian literally found his footing – notching double-figures in five straight games, including a 21-point, 15-rebound effort in just his tenth game as a pro. He would go on to double-up in four of Cleveland’s next eight games.
By the time All-Star Weekend rolled around, Z had established himself as one of the best young bigs in the game – averaging 12.7 points and 8.8 boards per contest in the first half, notching double-figure scoring in 33 games and grabbing double-digit boards in 22.
Like his Draft classmate – Vitaly Potapenko – the season before, Ilgauskas was selected to play in the Schick Rookie Challenge at Madison Square Garden. But he wasn’t alone in representing the Cavaliers. He was joined by 1998 Draft picks – Brevin Knight and Cedric Henderson. (Derek Anderson was forced to miss the game with an injury.) The East squad also included Chauncey Billups and Tracy McGrady.
Of course, back in the late ‘90s, scores hadn’t yet gone through the roof during All-Star Weekend and the two young squads actually battled through a defensive exhibition. The West had cut the East’s lead to three, 83-80, with 22 seconds to play, but Tim Thomas’ free throws iced the 85-80 win for the East.
The trio of Cavaliers represented Cleveland quite well. Henderson finished with 14 points and Knight led the East with eight assists. But Ilgauskas was even better – finishing 8-of-10 from the floor for 18 points to go with seven boards and a pair of blocked shots to take home MVP honors.
Big Z was just as good or better in the season’s second half – netting double-figures in all but five of the Cavaliers’ 35 remaining contests. And as the Cavaliers prepared for their return to the postseason, Ilgauskas was even better down the stretch, scoring 25, 26, and 26 points in the final three games of his first regular season on the North Coast.
Z’s trip to All-Star Weekend as a rookie was his first trip to the midseason classic, but it wouldn’t be his last. And after that stellar rookie season, he gave Cavalier fans a glimpse into the future of just how good the formerly unknown kid from Kaunas could be.
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