- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 5, 2002

This time last year, Washington Wizards forward Kwame Brown was walking around with a deer-in-the-headlights expression that clearly indicated the first high school player ever selected with the first pick in the NBA Draft was in way over his head.

As his rookie season grew more disappointing with each game, that glazed look was joined by a bad case of anxiety-induced acne that would stay with Brown through a horrendous rookie season during which some questioned the legitimacy of his lofty selection. After all, Brown's paltry averages in scoring (4.5) and rebounding (3.5) invited both skepticism and doubt.

"When things are going bad the stress starts to show up on your skin, your personality," Brown recalled. "Fortunately, it was my skin and not my personality."

Three games into his second season, however, Brown's once-bewildered expression exudes confidence and his complexion is clear.

The reasoning for this, as the Wizards (1-2) head into tonight's game at Minnesota (2-1), is clear. Only three players in the NBA are averaging more rebounds than Brown's 12.7. And only Atlanta's Theo Ratliff, with five blocks a game, has a better average than Brown's 4.33. Brown also is third on the team in scoring at 12.0.

"Last year Kwame was more wide-eyed about everything," coach Doug Collins said, noting that Brown was star-struck in his first meeting with Minnesota forward Kevin Garnett a superstar who, like Brown, jumped directly to the league from high school. "I think this year he'll be more inclined to see what he can do."

Brown looked sharp in the preseason, asserting himself early and often. However, this didn't impress the team's brass, which saw him play strong in summer leagues in 2001 only to become a virtual non-factor during the regular season.

But Brown, whose three starts this season already match his total for all of last season when he appeared in 57 games, is attracting high praise from people like Collins for his early play. Critical to a fault, by his own admission of Brown's play last season, Collins spoke highly of the improvement he has shown.

"He's been much more assertive, shown much more confidence," Collins said. "Even the other night, he only had four points but he had 14 rebounds. He's being a presence out there. He knows now that if there is a night where the ball is not falling for him, he can make his mark on this team by doing other things rebounding, running the floor, blocking shots. And he's doing that. I'm very pleased with Kwame."

So far, why not? Brown opened the season with a career-high 18 rebounds in an otherwise abysmal loss to Toronto. In the team's 45-point rout of Boston, Brown went for career highs in points (20) and blocks (six). And although he scored just four points in the team's weekend loss to Eastern Conference defending champion New Jersey, Brown, an extremely quick leaper, grabbed 14 rebounds and recorded three steals and two blocks.

The Wizards know full well that it is way too early to become overly excited over Brown's play with the season not even one week old. But lost on no one in the organization and the league is that it is Brown's shoulders, perhaps more than any other player's, upon which the franchise's future rests.

"The times when we played against him he really was never much of a factor, never really got into it," said teammate Jerry Stackhouse, who spent the last five seasons in Detroit. "A lot has been put on him, and I think he's handling it well. He's constantly hearing, 'As he goes, so will the team go.' That's a lot of pressure on him, and I think he's handling it well."

Brown has stopped looking over his shoulder every time he makes a mistake, a comfort zone Collins now lets him work in. And even though he is still concerned about making the kind of careless mistakes to which a 20-year-old at this level is prone, he's not going to start losing sleep over it something that happened last season, along with the acne and other stress-related problems.

"I don't have to play with any anxiety of making a mistake and knowing that I'm coming out," Brown said. "Now I make mistakes all the time out there, and Coach allows me to work through them. As long as he allows me to keep doing that, the better and better I'll get."


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