Shortly after LeBron James made his national television debut on ESPN2 last December, leading his St. Vincent-St. Mary's team to an important win over Oak Hill Academy and bringing a fervid Dick Vitale out of his chair more than once, Phoenix Suns rookie Amaré Stoudemire staged a one-man show of his own.
The Suns were in Minneapolis visiting the Timberwolves when Stoudemire decided he'd give Kevin Garnett a close look at what at least one high school kid is up to these days. Playing a full 45 minutes, Stoudemire shot 16-of-24 from the field, posted game-highs of 38 points and 14 boards and was generally a voracious and inexorable beast around the basket. The Wolves got the win, but the buzz afterward focused solely on the 20-year-old and his Mack truck power.
At 20 years old, Stoudemire became the youngest player to receive the got milk? Rookie of the Year Award.
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"He plays well beyond his years," Minnesota coach Flip Saunders said. "He plays like a man. He brings a great amount of energy and aggressiveness to the game. He has great talent, but also has the mental drive. He has the full package. I said I thought he was a combination of Karl Malone
and Shawn Kemp
. He has Kemp's explosiveness and his high-wire act. He has Malone's temperament, strength and meanness, rebounding-wise."
Wolves guard Kendall Gill offered a more succinct analysis.
"I've never seen in my career someone jump that quickly and with that kind of power. He's a true stud."
Most famously, though, Suns teammate Stephon Marbury -- who played alongside Garnett for more than two seasons -- was asked how Stoudemire stacked up against KG at the same age.
"It's not even close," Marbury replied. "He doesn't even compare to Amaré. Two different people. It's like Michael Jordan and Mario Elie."
Months later, Stoudemire would point to this game as a pivotal one in his season, the point where he realized that not only did he belong in the NBA, but also that he had the potential to be a star.
"When we played against Minnesota," he said, "and I went up there and scored 38 points, I think I had a good feeling for the game and I was feeling very comfortable out there after that."
Those were Stoudemire's words on April 24, the day he became the youngest-ever player to be named got milk? Rookie of the Year.
Of course, many expect James, who turns 19 on Dec. 30, to lower that mark in 2003-04, but the most heralded high school basketball player of all time will soon realize that several factors can help or hinder his achievement in the NBA. In Stoudemire's case, the Rookie of the Year Award was certainly a product of his own skill and dedication, but more importantly, it was the culmination of talent and desire brewing within an organization eager to catalyze his developmental success.
Suns assistant coach Marc Iavaroni, who won an NBA title with Philadelphia in 1983 playing beside another preps-to-pros phenom, Moses Malone, worked closely with Stoudemire all year, beginning with the 2002 summer leagues.
"When we drafted him," Iavaroni recalled, "we saw a ferocity, a developed body and a lot of things you couldn't teach. He had a lot more than people realized, but we also knew that with the right structure we'd give him the basic skills."
The Cavaliers will make James the top pick in the NBA Draft 2003.
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James has the basic skills -- to be sure, no one's calling the savior from Akron a project -- and besides, to compare his game to Stoudemire's isn't necessarily cogent. Though 6-8, James will potentially play point guard in Cleveland, while the 6-10 Stoudemire is a prototype power forward; where James is flash and razzle-dazzle, Stoudemire is blunt trauma.
The key point isn't style, though. A high school player -- or any player -- entering the NBA simply must have the size, strength and ability to compete.
"You have to have the physical tools," said Iavaroni. "Amaré was mature and physically gifted beyond 19 years old."
It was the areas beyond skill set and talent alone where everything unfolded perfectly for Stoudemire, and where the outlook remains hazy for James: Positive attitude, work ethic, coachability, teammate support and leadership. In his rookie season, Stoudemire had them all.
Said Iavaroni, "He had the approach that 'I'm not here to get by. I'm not here to fit in. I'm here to make an impression. I will respect them but not fear them.' The kid had an incredible level of confidence."
But it was a humble confidence. Throughout the year, Stoudemire was quick to acknowledge the extent to which he was still learning and improving. Even after his huge game in Minnesota, he remained modest.
"I think I can be pretty good after a while," Stoudemire said. "After I get the fundamentals down and get comfortable out there."
Indeed, his approach to practices was as intense as to games, a trait that impressed his teammates.
"He was very good in practices," said Iavaroni. "He loves to compete. He would do things in practice where his teammates would go 'Woo!' and want to help him. They liked playing with him and he became embraced by them pretty early on."
Also beneficial to Stoudemire was that the Suns had Bo Outlaw and Scott Williams on their roster, a pair of veteran big men who could complement the coaching staff with their advice and instruction.
"Bo brought a work ethic and the ability to impact a game without scoring," Iavaroni said. "Scott was our primary center, and he really taught Amaré a lot about how to use his body. Both set an example with their overall professionalism. All that helped us tremendously, but Amaré also learns and applies pretty quickly."
"I give all my respect to my teammates and the coaching staff," Stoudemire said at his Rookie of the Year press conference. "Without them it wouldn’t be possible for me to get this award."
For James, the Cavaliers took a big step in the right direction when they hired Paul Silas, an experienced and respected head coach, but the team -- particularly in the backcourt -- is very young. Centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Michael Stewart, both 28, are the resident elders, and no one has more than six years in the league.
So besides the pressure and expectations that have inevitably been heaped upon James as a result of relentless hype, he joins an organization where he will not learn from, but be, a team leader. Then there will be the added distractions of playing close to his family and friends in his home state, interviews and endorsements and everything else that comes with the lifestyle of an NBA superstar. How he handles it all will be a testament to his maturity as well as the ability of Silas and the coaching staff.
If he wants a recipe for success, though, he need only look to his predecessor in Phoenix; stay confident and work hard, learn as much as possible, show respect but not fear.
Or, as Stoudemire put it shortly after being named the top rookie in the game, "I’ve still got to bring the doughnuts and unload the luggage."