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Questions? Gooden has answers
by Chad Rader / August 12, 2002

From if he could succeed at Kansas to how good he could become in the NBA, Drew Gooden has provided the answers to questions during his basketball career. But now the biggest one as he starts out his NBA rookie campaign at Memphis isn’t whether he will excel, but when?

That question remains a little hazy, since Gooden rests amongst a logjam in the frontcourt. The Grizzlies boast a strong young frontline with second-year studs Shane Battier and 2002 NBA Rookie of the Year Pau Gasol, and now the 6-10 Gooden, the number four selection in this year’s past draft whom the Grizzlies inked to a three-year deal worth over $9 million.

Add in such players as Lorenzen Wright, Stromile Swift and 7-1 project Cezary Trybanski and the Grizzlies have an overload up front. But that’s a situation that Gooden feels ready to overcome.

“You always have to start somewhere,” said Gooden. “I was asked a lot of questions coming in from high school about how I was going to fit (at the University of Kansas). I had a lot of question marks over my head. Apparently I did good and got past that. You just have to start somewhere and as a rookie - you have to start somewhere on the next level.”

Gooden certainly answered any questions at Kansas. After a promising freshman season and an impressive sophomore year (15.8, ppg, 8.4 rpg), Gooden exploded as a junior and finished as the NCAA’s top power forward. In a year when Player of the Year honors were already anointed to Jay Williams before the opening tip of the collegiate hoops season, Gooden almost overcame the hype and won the honor. The 6-10, 230-pounder led the Jayhawks to a 33-4 mark in 2001-02 and a trip to the Final Four.

But now, he goes from the nation’s top power forward to a scenario where he likely won’t even crack the starting lineup with Gasol and Battier staking a griphold on the 3 and 4 spots. But Gooden remains content with the situation – though that situation remains uncertain.

“I think that I will be able to contribute,” said Gooden. “It really depends on what type of situation that I am in. Knowing me as a person, I adapt pretty well and it should be a great start for me.”

Gooden certainly got off to a great start in the eyes of the Memphis front office, particularly Jerry West, the Grizzlies president of basketball operations. Gooden lit up the Summer Pro League with 21.2 points and 9.7 rebounds. While the team didn’t perform well at 2-5, West was more focused on Gooden.

''We got a terrific rookie (in Gooden), who's going to be a helluva player,” West told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “The most important thing that we can get out of this is trying to get him experience.”

But there are a few things that Gooden must overcome. First, he will need to cut down on his turnovers, as Gooden averaged 4.1 per game in the SPL and tried to force the issue many times as Kansas.

Then there’s yet another question. Where will Memphis use him? Will he play at the 3 and take his game outside? If so, he needs to sharpen his outside shooting. He did exhibit an ability to can the 15-footers while at Kansas and made 10-of-36 (27.8%) from behind the three-point stripe.

But what if the Grizzlies’ foresee Gooden as a force down low? He will need to add more bulk to his 230-pound frame to compete with the big boys. He was overpowered in the Final Four against fellow lottery pick Chris Wilcox and the rest of the Maryland frontline, scoring 15 points on 5-for-12 shooting and nine rebounds. He struggled at times in a loss at UCLA against a physical frontline.

There’s no question that Gooden should be able to contribute to an improving Grizzlies lineup. He merely posted 25 double-doubles last season, single-season records both at KU and the Big 12 conference. He dominated opponents on the glass and seemingly was always in position for a carom. Just ask Bobby Knight when Gooden snared 21 rebounds in just 26 minutes against Texas Tech in the Big 12 tourney. Or Oregon after the NCAA regional final when he posted 18 points and 20 rebounds in just 31 minutes – before grabbing the regional MVP award.

Offensively, he shows few deficiencies. He possesses quick feet. He has an equally quick release on his shot. And most importantly, he has the intangible of being a smart player with a knack of being where the ball is at all times. During one interview last year, Gooden spoke of becoming a basketball coach after his playing career.

His offensive repertoire consists of fluid moves fit for a 6-5 player. One on possession, Gooden would take the ball at the top of the key, blow past a defender off the dribble and drive in for a hoop. The next trip could result in a 15-foot bucket from the wing. On the post, Gooden’s array consists of baseline fadeaways, a quick flip hook or simply overpowering his opponent for a banker off the glass.

Gooden possesses a soft touch – shown by a 75.5 percent effort from the free-throw line. His combination of his rebounding and offense rivaled Kansas frontcourt legends of recent memory in Danny Manning, the No. 1 overall pick in 1988 and Raef LaFrentz, a No. 3 selection in 1998.

But despite his gaudy numbers and accolades, the question remains – how will Gooden perform at the NBA level? Are we seeing another LaFrentz or Kenyon Martin, or another John Wallace or Marcus Fizer?

His former head coach – Roy Williams, has seen just a few NBA greats in his time. Michael Jordan and James Worthy at North Carolina. LaFrentz and Paul Pierce at Kansas. And Williams feels Gooden will rank right up there.

“Drew has the hunger, the drive,” said the Jayhawks’ head coach. “I think he will be an NBA player the next 12 years. I think he will be an NBA All-Star.”

And Jordan and Gooden have been mentioned in the same sentence before. Gooden served as a camp counselor for Jordan’s Flight School summer camp. And then there’s the time in college that Gooden decided to answer a question about his own potential and stated that he could become as good as Air Jordan.

But Gooden wanted to clear the air on that one before starting his NBA career.

“I am going to get every Jordan question right from now on,” he said. “I didn’t play against Michael Jordan. I did not score on Michael Jordan. I know you guys saying that I said I was better than Michael Jordan. I never said that.”

But we can say this – Gooden should provide many answers for Memphis, no matter the question.

Chad Rader is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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