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Thursday, August 9, 2001
Clipper future depends on 22-year-old Odom

By Scott Howard-Cooper
Special to ESPN.com

So now everyone is jumping on the Clipper bandwagon, and ticket sales are flowing better than ever, and the expectations are for winning instead of survival, and .500 is entirely realistic, and they have starting forwards their Staples Center co-tenants could only hope to have ... and all that is nothing compared to the real reality check.
Lamar Odom
Lamar Odom is a five-tool guy with 3-point range who can play any position on the court.

They will be trying to make the playoffs with a 22-year-old as team leader.

They will be one of the 10 best-shooting teams in the league with a third-year player as team leader.

A leader who was disciplined twice in 2000-01, once by the league and once by the Clips, who will be 21 until the new season is a week old, who attended three high schools in New York and Connecticut and two colleges before jumping to the NBA after 32 games and one campaign at Rhode Island. A leader who is everything they want to be and everything they want to put in the past.

Lamar Odom is exciting and promising and full of hard work and all the right intentions, and in need of stability. None of which would make him much different from the rest of The Next Generation except that he also has the high praise/great burden of being his team's emotional leader at the same time, an added responsibility rarely seen for someone with his (lack of) experience. We're not just talking today's NBA either.

Not that the Clippers forced this additional weight on him, as if developing into an All-Star wasn't enough of a challenge on its own. Odom asked for it. That's as commendable for him as it is risky for them, as was proven last season. They also could have declined, but let the trial balloon go for all the right reasons.

There weren't many options. That tends to happen a lot on a team that wins 31 games and loses 25 times by double-digit margins and had only two real veterans healthy and on the roster all season, big men Sean Rooks and Cherokee Parks. Plus, one of the biggest strengths for Coach Alvin Gentry is communication, so he could have reduced the load on Odom at any time without much difficult. This wasn't some lifetime appointment.

It was part of the growing pains, is what it was. Just like lottery teams expect to have on the court. It's just that, as of now, with their roster likely set barring unexpected developments on the trade front, the Clippers have expectations for success now where the luxury of a low horizon once cushioned the mistakes. No more.
It's really kind of unfair to him, because I don't think anybody in NBA history has had to lead a team as a 21-year-old, especially a team that's trying to struggle for respectability.
Gentry on Odom

Odom is a star in the making, but some developments will need to come faster than others. Just since late-January of last season, he was suspended five games for violating the league's anti-drug policy and was benched for one start for a missed practice that had Gentry, who all season had successfully found the fine line of discipline and the understanding that doing stupid things is a requirement of youth, fuming. Given the role Odom had taken in the locker room, those were greater red flags than his penchant for bad shots or turnovers that came when he tried to force a play out of exuberance.

To his credit, Odom quickly accepted responsibility for the suspension and the missed practice. But the actions also forced the Clippers to take a deep breath where they had once hoped those would only come in gasps of delight over a swoop to the basket.

"It's really kind of unfair to him, because I don't think anybody in NBA history has had to lead a team as a 21-year-old, especially a team that's trying to struggle for respectability," Gentry said at the time. "Magic (Johnson) came in under a unique situation and I still think that his first couple years he was not the leader of that team. You still had Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and some guys there. Lamar, we've asked him to do something that's been really difficult. He's gotten much, much better at it. Obviously he has a long way to be. But I think he's going to be great one day. I think he's going to be a great leader one day.

"I think it's difficult and I think it's something that he wants. Obviously he's going to make some mistakes. I understand that and we understand that as a franchise and we just have to give him the opportunity to make those mistakes, try to correct them and grow from there. But he is going to be the leader of our team."

One who decided not to stay with the team during the early stages of the five-game suspension. He instead skipped a three-game Texas trip when he could have at least practiced with the Clippers and contacted only a couple teammates.

"I was down a little bit," he said upon returning. "I didn't go on the road and kind of just stayed by myself. Maybe that wasn't the best thing either."

Francis
Francis

Brand
Brand

When he does play? There never has been much doubt. Odom went fourth in the 1999 draft -- after new teammate Elton Brand (Chicago), Steve Francis (Vancouver) and Baron Davis (Charlotte, as the only player who will become an All-Star with his original team) -- and might have gone even sooner if not for concerns raised by his vagabond life in high school and college. Upon joining the Clippers, he was named to the All-Rookie team after averaging 16.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, offset only by the 43.8 percent from the field and fouling out 13 times to lead the league. But last season, he was all the way up to 46 percent and down to four DQs, while also getting 17.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.2 assists.

He helped marshall the newest new kids, Darius Miles, Keyon Dooling and Quentin Richardson, with Miles starting about a quarter of the season and proving the Clippers right in the bold move of taking him No. 3 out of high school. (Even if going third from the preps these days would rate as being an underachiever.)

When Brand came this summer in exchange for No. 2 pick Tyson Chandler and Brian Skinner, they had another very successful draft, providing great depth and versatility along the front line, with the possibility that Miles might also play some at shooting guard or that the Clips could go small with three forwards and take out Michael Olowokandi. They are set for the season ahead, needing only aging.

A strong team-leader showing would also help.

Scott Howard-Cooper covers the NBA for the Sacramento Bee and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.