- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

When Yao Ming was selected with the top pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, it was said he represented the evolution of professional basketball, that today’s leading vote-getter for next month’s All-Star Game in Denver would wreak havoc for the next 15 seasons against the fundamentally inept American players.

Today, it’s hard to understand how this passive giant was selected ahead of high school vagabond Amare Stoudemire, whom NBA teams seemed to think had too much of a troubled childhood — his mother was incarcerated at one point, and he attended six different high schools — to be selected any higher than ninth by Phoenix.

Still, in what could be the defining moment in fan stupidity, at least in terms of the All-Star Game balloting, Yao not only is going to start for the Western Conference All-Stars, but he’s again the leading vote getter.

This fan naivete doesn’t stop with poor Yao, who might live up to his draft status one day, but it extends to players like New Jersey’s Vince Carter, who hasn’t resembled a star since 2001 and recently acknowledged he sometimes flat-out dogged it. Yao’s teammate Tracy McGrady also owned up to this but is still going to get the start.

The voting, or more appropriately the imbecility process, concluded yesterday, leaving it up to the coaches to fill out the roster with deserving reserves who should include the Wizards’ Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison.

Jamison was sixth among Eastern Conference forwards with 325,830 votes from the fans, while Arenas was an absurd ninth (138,493) among guards.

Ahead of Jamison, who is averaging 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds and has become the on-court glue for a Wizards team eyeing the playoffs for the first time since 1997, are Rasheed Wallace, who is having a pedestrian season wearing the championship mantel in Detroit; and Richard Jefferson, who was having an All-Star season for New Jersey before suffering a season-ending wrist injury.

Whenever conversation with coaches turns to the NBA’s midseason classic, they first tell you they are not focusing on the game as much as on their own team, then they usually add that winning carries a huge role in selecting the players. Jamison has the Wizards rolling at 24-15.

“You can’t question what he’s added to us from a leadership standpoint and what he does on the court,” Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said earlier this year. “He sets a tone, practices when he’s hurting, and everybody near him knows that they better give as much as he does.”

Jamison should make the team, and Arenas, ninth in the league in scoring at 23.9, should be a lock if the coaches are being honest with themselves.

Guys ahead of Arenas in the voting included Richard Hamilton and Stephon Marbury, who hasn’t done anything special except help expedite Lenny Wilkens’ resignation and foolishly suggest he’s a better point guard than Jason Kidd, which he isn’t. (By the way, isn’t that trade for Jerry Stackhouse looking as if it worked out in the long run for the Wizards? Yes, Hamilton did help the Pistons to a title, but he wasn’t going to do that here. The Wizards never would have been able to send Stackhouse and Christian Laettner for Jamison unless Rip was dealt.)

Speaking of Kidd, he too, is ahead of Arenas in the fan balloting, along with Steve Francis, Chauncey Billups and Paul Pierce, and none of them is having as good a season as Arenas.

The top three guards — LeBron James, Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade — are all deserving. But let’s be honest here. Iverson, almost seven years older than Arenas, is about to shake hands with 30, so he has seen his best years.

Arenas, who doesn’t have the benefit of playing alongside Shaquille O’Neal, is on a par with Wade, who does. James, just 20, is better than both by far, and it’s just a matter of time before the league resides in his back pocket.

Both Arenas and Jamison had knocks on them heading into the season that they are slowly erasing. Word on Jamison was he was just a numbers guy incapable of leading a team to the next level, more of a me-me guy. However, all he has done is embrace the opportunity to become the leader of a team that wasn’t supposed to be able to attract good players after the Michael Jordan fiasco.

And Arenas, so the story went, was a hothead, an immature player who would lose it after the Wizards awarded him his hefty contract. Instead, he’s a player who motivates himself night in and night out as well as anybody in the league.

Those are qualities Wizards fans aren’t alone in noticing. Coaches are seeing how hard the Wizards play every game, how they rally for wins, how they beat Western Conference teams. And if they are truly honest, they will make Arenas and Jamison the first Washington duo to make the All-Star Game since Jeff Malone and Moses Malone in 1987.

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