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Saturday, February 8, 2003
National spotlight finally finds these rookies

By Marc J. Spears
Special to ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- When it comes to rookies, NBA fans know Yao Ming because he's Yao Ming, Jay Williams because of Jason Williams the Duke All-America and Amare Stoudemire because he is a high school phenom who could end up being the NBA Rookie of the Year.

But today's Rookie Challenge, which pits the NBA's best first-year players against the league's top sophomores, gives the lesser-known newcomers the national stage to finally show their stuff.

Nene Hilario
Nene Hilario has something to prove.
Say hello to Denver Nuggets center Nene Hilario, Memphis Grizzlies guard Gordan Giricek and Cleveland Cavaliers forward-center Carlos Boozer, who are all members of the rookie team.

"It will give them publicity without a doubt for people nationally get to see guys they normally don't get to see," said rookies coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, one of the NBA's all-time great coaches. "I'm fortunate because I do all the home games (on television) for the Phoenix Suns, so I see get to see them when they come in. It's very important that they come in and play well in this game."

For Hilario, the draft's No. 7 overall pick, the game means more than a chance to show his skills.

A good outing could make Hilario familiar with fans outside of Denver, which owns a 12-37 record. At just age 20, he is the Nuggets' starting center and is averaging 9.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.79 steals per game. And if he was playing with more veteran players, his statistics would be better.

"This here is an opportunity to play with people the same age and shine a little bit on our own," said Hilario, through his interpreter, Joe Santos. "I just want to play my game, which is a simple game, a strong game and an efficient game. I am going to continue to do what I've been doing since the beginning of the season with the Nuggets."

Brazilian media took up most of the table during Hilario's media session on Friday. ESPN Brasil followed him around all day and his agent Michael Coyne has a full slate of meetings this weekend with reporters and such companies as Coca-Cola and a Brazilian bank and airline who are considering selling Hilario in Brazil. So a big game today could also be quite lucrative for the 6-foot-11, 260-pounder.

"I definitely see the importance in a weekend like this," Hilario said. "Not only on the court, but off the court. Personally, I hope it helps my image off the court, my marketing opportunities and also opens up doors for the NBA in Brazil in merchandise selling."

Unknown to just about everyone outside of Memphis is Giricek, who was a big-time scorer for CSKA Moscow last season. The 6-foot-5, 210-pound sharpshooter was originally drafted with the 40th pick in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft by San Antonio. The Spurs, however, traded the Croatian's rights to Cleveland on June 28, 2002 for a future second-round pick and cash.

Giricek started his NBA career in grand fashion scoring 30 points in his debut against Dallas. He has started 34 of Memphis' 48 games and averaged 11.3 points and 4.4 rebounds. But since Memphis has a 13-35 record, national publicity is hard to come by.

"Every bit helps," said Giricek, about the TV exposure. "The most important thing for us guys is to play well this season -- that's the biggest commercial for us."

Williams was selected second overall last June, while Blue Devils teammate Mike Dunleavy, Jr., went third to Golden State. As for Boozer, also a Dukie, he was selected with the 35th pick overall in the second round by Cleveland.

Going into a nationally televised game where everyone is watching, if you go out there and play good, people are like, 'Who is that? Where does he come from?' ... People will start paying attention to you.
Jason Richardson

Of the three former Duke stars, however, Boozer has fared the best thus far. The 6-8, 258-pounder is averaging 8.7 points and 13 rebounds per game and has started 25 of his 49 contests.

"We will get a lot of exposure and people will see that we are doing a lot of work out there," Boozer said. "We're just honored to be here. We're very blessed and excited about it. I still think the bottom line is we have to win games (for publicity) and we're going to try to go out and do that. But it's good to be recognized even though (the Cavaliers) are just 10-40."

For more motivation, all these three rookies need to do is remember Golden State guard Jason Richardson.

Richardson got little publicity going into All-Star weekend last season since the Warriors were one of the NBA's worst teams. But after winning MVP honors in the Rookie Challenge after winning the slam dunk contest, Richardson vaulted off those accolades to get consideration for the Rookie of the Year award, earn endorsement opportunities and more fanfare.

"I was in a similar position last year," Richardson said. "I wasn't given that much attention. I was averaging like 10 points. But going into a nationally televised game where everyone is watching, if you go out there and play good, people are like, 'Who is that? Where does he come from?' But you've been there all along. People will start paying attention to you -- they are going to check up on you a lot more and read about you a lot.

"When I went back to Oakland, the fans started cheering for me more. People just started respecting you a lot more."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA for the Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.