Monday , Apr , 12 , 2004 C.Y. Ellis

Nenê: Baby Steps

“You can’t give yourself one name until you’ve accomplished something”.

Those ten words bothered me. Every time I looked at the single name emblazoned upon the back of his jersey I felt the same malaise that plagued me when first I heard Barkley make this seemingly flippant comment. What was worse was that I couldn’t rationalise this annoyance or establish exactly why it was that it irritated me so much.

Nenê: Baby StepsThen it struck me. Charles was right. Nenê hasn’t accomplished anything. Please don’t construe this as an attack on the kid; he’s done incredibly well since he joined the league, averaging double figures in scoring and more than six rebounds in his rookie season and improving on those numbers in his sophomore campaign. Add to that the fact that he’s learning a new game, a new language and a new culture and his freshman year appears all the more impressive.

I have beef because we only ever get to see snippets of what he can do. I saw the trailer of Nenê: The Rookie, but Coach Bzdelik cancelled the main feature. Nenê 2 went straight to video. Sure, he made the highlight reels every so often, but without looking closely few saw past the façade of the dunking 260-pound kid from Brazil. Something strange happened along the line with this one. For once, a team didn’t expect enough from a young player. Yeah, I said it.

General Managers took a lot of chances with foreign kids that year. The other players who hailed from abroad picked in the first round were Nenad Krstic, Jiri Welsch, Bostjan Nachbar and Denver’s own Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Krstic is yet to step on an NBA floor and of the other three, Skita’s stat line was the strongest, still a modest four, two and one. Their weak efforts should have provided a backdrop against which Nenê’s year shone, and to an extent they did. Unfortunately, they also helped to harness the expectations of the team’s organisation, which thought itself lucky to have found Nenê at all.

This now meant that Coach Buzz and Kiki saw Nenê as accomplished. They saw the 10 and 6 and counted their blessings, thinking that he’d come close to reaching his potential. If you ever hear Vandeweghe talk of him, you’ll probably hear how pleased he is with the boy. That’s a damn shame. Kiki should be pushing him for more every day, challenging him, forcing him to take his place in the league among the elite power forwards. What’s even worse is that it’s all there in him already; he’s no Darko. When I say Nenê needs more time to be great, I’m not talking hours in the gym; I’m talking minutes per game. The Nuggets don’t need to bring him along in baby steps. Now is the time to throw him in at the deep end. Believe me, he’ll swim.

Those flashes of brilliance you see from him every fortnight or so could be duplicated every game if he were to receive the ball more often. There’s not a player in the league with such a combination of mobility and strength – former NBA great Adrian Dantley himself commented on the fact that he had never seen a player so powerful and large move with such ease and fluidity. He can put his defender in the spin cycle and finish with a slick up-and-under one play, then turn and simply hammer it down with ridiculous force the next. Just ask Amaré – he’s still picking synthetic leather out of his teeth after Nenê cut behind him along the baseline, sealed him directly underneath the hoop, bumped him in the air and threw it down.

There are some who realise what the kid could do, though. One of those is one of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game.

“Nenê is going to be a great player, but you can’t give yourself one name until you’ve accomplished something”

Charles knows. We can only hope that Buzz and Kiki realise soon.