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NBA Section

  Szczerbiak Stock Soars; Forward Is Blue-Chip

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By Steve Wyche
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 1999; Page D4

With roughly four dozen NBA talent evaluators on hand, Wally Szczerbiak walked onto the court in a small-school college gymnasium in Chicago this month and peeled off his shirt, revealing a muscular, streamlined physique similar to that of a world-class swimmer.

Over the next 90 minutes he ran, jumped, shot, dunked and dribbled, looking like a Ralph Lauren model with serious skills. It was an impressive enough showcase that as soon as he finished, Kevin McHale, the Minnesota Timberwolves' vice president of basketball operations, and Charlotte Hornets Coach Paul Silas quickly walked across the court to talk to Szczerbiak before the rest of the crowd made its way over.

1999 NBA Draft
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: MCI Center
Tickets: $18, $15 or $8, available through Ticketmaster and MCI Center box office.
The NBA draft is Wednesday at MCI Center and Szczerbiak, at 6 feet 7 and 240 pounds, is expected to be among the first seven players picked – and could go as high as No. 1. If he is still around when the Washington Wizards make their selection at No. 7, they almost certainly will take the former Miami of Ohio star. That may be wishful thinking, though, as Szczerbiak has put himself in position to be among the top three forwards picked, along with Duke's Elton Brand and Rhode Island's Lamar Odom.

Szczerbiak has solidified his status in individual workouts, aiming to dispel what he calls "the white man's myth," which holds that white players can't jump as high and aren't as agile as black players.

"This is a little bit of a risk on my behalf, but I didn't like some of the questions people had like, 'Can he defend? Can he go to the hole? Is he athletic?'" Szczerbiak said after his workout in Chicago.

"There's nothing wrong with being compared to Tom Gugliotta and Dan Majerle, I just wonder why people stereotype other people by whatever color they are."

Szczerbiak likens his game to that of Los Angeles Lakers forward Glen Rice, who happens to be black.

"I think that's a good comparison," Szczerbiak said. "I can shoot it outside and go to the hole strong. He's more north-south. I can handle [the ball] a little bit more than him. But he's an all-star, so it's nice to be compared to him."

However, as much as he and his agent wants talent evaluators – Washington General Manager Wes Unseld and Phoenix Suns Coach Danny Ainge among them – to look beyond Szczerbiak's skin color, they also are hoping fans will view him as the all-American kid off the court.

Szczerbiak's agent, Gary Wichard, acknowledges that his client has all the attributes to capitalize on commercial endorsements before he plays one NBA game – great smile, great family, small college, no ego, nice basketball game, white skin.

"Off the court is a career that will go a long way," Wichard said. "We've already been pretty bombarded. He did a big thing in New York for Eggo waffles. In fact, they're negotiating a big deal with us.

"Kellogg's [the maker of Eggo waffles] targeted Wally as being a guy to represent them, to cross over into any world. And the women are the biggest aspect of that. Eggo waffles are bought by moms, not by some kid trying to buy some sneakers. They like the fact that he did graduate, that he's articulate and he can play the game.

"Brian Bosworth was the antihero 10 years ago, maybe it's time to go back to the great American hero."

Szczerbiak was born in Spain, where his father, Walt, played professional basketball, leading Real Madrid to three European championships. Walt, a former standout at George Washington, eventually returned to the United States and raised his family on Long Island.

Wally Szczerbiak is a lifelong gym rat who played in New York City summer leagues to improve his game. A second-team all-American, Szczerbiak averaged more than 24 points his junior and senior seasons, and he led Miami into the 1999 NCAA tournament's round of 16. That is when his already-solid stock rose.

Szczerbiak scored a career-high 43 points in a 59-58 victory over Washington in the opening round, followed that with 24 against Utah and 23 against Kentucky.

Szczerbiak, a member of the United States' gold medal Goodwill Games team in 1998, was third in the nation in scoring with a 24.2-point average.

"Wally was the best shooter in college basketball this season," said Marty Blake, the NBA's director of scouting.

The biggest concern of some personnel evaluators is that Szczerbiak may have problems defending other small forwards on the wing, especially now that the NBA may implement rules limiting what defenders can do to stop offensive players from penetrating the lane.

"I have confidence with my ability to go out and play well," Szczerbiak said.

And sell well, particularly if he handles his business on the court.

"I think there will be quite a few endorsements if I can make an impact on the floor," Szczerbiak said.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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