- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 22, 2002

Out of the glare and heat of the spotlight that tracked every step and misstep of the first high school player to get drafted No.1 overall, Kwame Brown has grown up.

In the 2½ weeks of training camp and preseason that he has been healthy, Brown has displayed marked improvement on all levels after a rookie year that brought more growing pains than anticipated and frustration on the part of player, coach and organization. The 20-year-old power forward's numbers are up he has posted averages of 17.0 points and 8.0 rebounds in five preseason games and he's showing the potential that put him at the top of the Wizards' draft board in 2001.

Why? Brown's answer is that he needed a year to mature, used the summer to improve his game and his fitness, and his experience and everything he learned last season is now manifesting itself on the court. His incredible talent, seen only in flashes last season, has now become increasingly visible, and he's striving for consistency.

"I don't want to toot my own horn, but I worked hard this summer," Brown said, a projected starter for the season opener on Oct.30 at Toronto. "I gained a little bit of weight, but I think the main thing now is I'm just comfortable out there. I'm doing nothing different, I'm just comfortable, just relaxed. That's what a year does, it allows you to grow and mature."

That process got going this summer when Brown improved his eating habits eschewing the junk food he used to eat for a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet and worked on his low-post game and jump shot, which he has shown in the preseason he can make from as far as 18 feet.

Brown has shaken off what could have been a foreboding beginning to his sophomore season, as he battled a hamstring injury that limited his play through the summer and forced him out of the first few workouts in training camp. It appeared the injury would impede his conditioning and posed the possibility that Brown would fall behind his teammates in that regard and start the season slowly, as he did a year ago.

Brown quashed those concerns by playing through the injury and putting in several good workouts during training camp. Then, in the Wizards' first preseason game against Philadelphia, he racked up 20 points and five rebounds in showing little, if any, hesitation that might have held him back a year ago. He attacked the basket, was active on defense in blocking shots and gamely went after rebounds. To prove nothing was a fluke, Brown followed it up with 22 points and 14 rebounds and had 15 and 10 in the third preseason game. This was the emergence of a new Kwame Brown.

"He's been very consistent," coach Doug Collins said. "But the thing about him is, you can't get complacent in any way. He's got to go out every single night and compete because what he's doing is he's gained a lot of respect not just among his teammates but around the NBA."

That respect certainly did not exist in his rookie season, which Brown entered out of shape, and quickly showed in his early game action that he was not ready physically or mentally for the rigors of the NBA.

He sprained his ankle in the first game last season and missed the next four games, immediately hampering his ability to begin the transition from high school senior to NBA rookie. He continued to flounder, and by January and February, Brown found himself all but planted on the Wizards' bench, out of action because of injuries and ineffectiveness.

With some observers no doubt poised to slap the "bust" label on Brown some already had Brown finished the season on a positive note. He scored in double figures in six games in April, small consolation with the Wizards sliding out of the playoff race. He finished 2001-02 averaging 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 57 games.

Looking back though, Brown doesn't consider his rookie season a disappointment; he knew he had some major developing to do and that he was not prepared for the pace of the NBA game, the quickness of its players, the demands that his coach and teammates placed on him because he was the No.1 pick, because the franchise had put so much of its future on the shoulders of his 6-foot-11, 211-pound frame. So he needed that season to take his lumps and get adjusted, regardless of what everyone else expected.

"Last year, my head was just swirling, wondering where I should be, doing this," Brown said. "I was always a second late."

Brown had pressure on him to perform as the No.1 overall pick, but also because of the high school players that have arrived in the NBA and, within a few years of getting drafted, made a profound impact on the league Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady. But, as Collins pointed out, their success didn't come in their first seasons.

Brown is being handled differently this season. Collins said he is treating him as another member of the team after admittedly "micromanaging" Brown last season. Also, with the addition of Charles Oakley, Jerry Stackhouse and Bryon Russell, along with assistant coach Patrick Ewing, the Wizards now have more veterans to better guide Brown, who has credited Christian Laettner and the now-departed Popeye Jones for helping him last season.

"I'm going to treat him as one of our players and not look to see what he's doing every single second," Collins said. "Last year, it was our eyes on him every single day. I think it was because we have so much invested in him, we wanted him to be so great. It just takes time."

Then again, it is just the preseason. Brown hasn't faced one of the league's top-tier frontcourts yet, and he and the Wizards' big men struggled at times against Jamaal Magloire, Robert Traylor and the New Orleans Hornets frontcourt although it was without other key components P.J. Brown and Elden Campbell. (Brown had 13 points). Once the regular season starts, he'll have a higher level of competition to adjust to.

"I think teams are going to turn it up a notch once they see" how he's playing, Brown said. "Once they see that I'm playing at a higher level and I can still play like that in a regular game, that's when well, I won't be satisfied, but that will make me a little more hungry to work."

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