Center of attention: Nene making case for All-Star spot
Nuggets big man could be in line as replacement for Yao
A respectful plea to the commissioner’s office:
Yao Ming is hurt.
Amar’e Stoudemire took his game East.
The 2011 Western Conference All-Star team is in need of a starting center.
The time is now for Nene.
“He’s an All-Star,” Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins said recently. “Just look at his numbers.”
In his ninth NBA season, Nene is averaging a career-high 15.1 points and 7.6 rebounds. He also leads the NBA with a .626 field-goal percentage, which is 41 points higher than New Orleans Hornets center Emeka Okafor and 60 points better than four-time All-Star Dwight Howard of the Orlando Magic.
Unfortunately for Nene, there is one big number working against him as he makes a case for his first All-Star appearance: 461,000. That’s about how many votes Nene trailed Houston Rockets center Yao Ming in the latest All-Star ballot returns.
With a strong backing from on-line voters in his native China, Yao monopolized the Western Conference center spot from 2003-09, with Stoudemire receiving the nod last year when Yao was left off the ballot due to injury. Nene, Yao and Stoudemire – who is now playing for the New York Knicks – were all members of the 2002 NBA Draft class.
Yao once again is the runaway leader in fan balloting among West centers, but he is out for the season with a foot injury, meaning NBA commissioner David Stern will have to choose a replacement.
If the commish chooses Yao’s replacement from the candidates listed on the official All-Star ballot that was unveiled in November, Nene should be his top choice.
Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum is running a distant second to Yao, but Bynum missed the first 24 games of the season and is averaging 9.4 points and 6.7 rebounds.
Other centers on the West All-Star ballot include Andris Biedrins, Marcus Camby, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Brendan Haywood, Chris Kaman, Robin Lopez and Emeka Okafor.
None of those players has been as steady and productive as Nene, who has scored in double figures in 27 of 31 games and recorded six double-doubles – including a 27-point, 11-rebound, six-assist performance against Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 5.
Among that All-Star ballot peer group, Nene also ranks first in scoring (15.1), first in field-goal percentage (.626), first in free-throw percentage (.786), first in efficiency (20.6), third in assists (2.3) fourth in double-doubles and fourth in steals (0.8) and fifth in rebounding (7.6).
“He’s got great footwork, big hands and a soft shooting touch,” said Collins, who spent seven years as an analyst for TNT and has coached All-Stars such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Grant Hill. “I’ve always said he’s a reluctant scorer. He’s been a guy that has been a 14- or 15-point per game scorer, but he’s a 20-plus guy. He’s terrific.”
The biggest knock on Nene is that he too often defers to his teammates by looking to pass first and shoot second.
Nuggets coach George Karl and the rest of the coaching staff constantly remind the 28-year-old Brazilian that it’s okay to be unselfish when the flow of the game dictates a need for him to be more aggressive in the paint.
“He has an All-Star ability,” Karl said. “We’re happy with him, but I don’t think we should be satisfied.”
Nor should Nuggets fans within reach of a cell phone or computer.
Just as China has thrown its unconditional support behind Yao for the past nine years, Brazil can give Nene a boost at the virtual ballot box over the next two weeks by voting on-line at NBA.com.
Because telephone rates are so high in Brazil, text-message votes have been tough to come by for Nene, but that shouldn’t stop Nuggets fans in Colorado and across America. To cast a vote, text “Nene” to 6-9-6-2-2 through any wireless carrier.
It might not be enough for Nene to catch Yao for the automatic starting spot at the Feb. 20 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, but it could help convince commissioner Stern that Nene is the right man to fill the void in the middle.