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Nocioni is "the next DeBusschere"
by Dennis Hans / May 1, 2006

An unfair and burdensome label that too often is stuck on talented young white forwards is “the next Larry Bird.” Bird is one of the ten greatest players of all time. Chances are we’ll be waiting for decades for anyone of any color to match his immense and varied talents. Today’s white forwards would benefit from a more reasonable and reachable measuring stick, which is why I have launched a search and found a nominee for “the next Dave DeBusschere.”

As for “the next Larry Bird,” I hereby declare that title open to players of every hue, and below I propose a premium-blend international recipient. But first, “the next Dave DeBusschere.”

As every hoop geezer knows, Dave DeBusschere (DD) was voted in 1996 one of the 50 greatest NBA players of all time. The power forward for the 1970 and 1973 world champion New York Knicks, DD began his career playing for and briefly coaching the Detroit Pistons and pitching in the offseason for the Chicago White Sox. In 1968, early in his seventh season, he was traded to the Knicks for center Walt Bellamy. Coach Red Holzman moved power forward Willis Reed to center and put DeBusschere at Reed’s vacated 4 spot, thus giving the Knicks something unique in NBA annals: a complete, well-rounded player at every position. It’s easy to have great ball movement and shot selection New York’s new calling card when everyone can catch, pass, cut, dribble and shoot.

DD was a perennial all-league defender and strong rebounder whose 22-foot range (in the pre-trey era) achieved a similar effect to what Piston power forward Rasheed Wallace achieves with his three-point range: stretching the opposing team’s defense and making it pay when it doesn’t. Both as a Knick and for his career, DD was good for 16 points and 11 rebounds in 36 minutes.

Even in the 1960s and early 1970s, 6-6 was a bit short for a power forward, though DeBusschere was certainly strong and rugged enough at 235 pounds. What he surrendered in height he more than made up for in coordination, quickness and skill the three areas he generally had an edge on his opponent. Bear in mind, though, that the league was less compartmentalized then, with some teams featuring two all-purpose forwards rather than clearly defined 3s and 4s with separate duties and decidedly different bodies.

My nominee for the “the next Dave DeBusschere” is Andres Nocioni, the Argentina-born Chicago Bull who splits his time at both forward positions and really provides a spark when he’s at DD’s 4 spot.

I confess to two misgivings about my choice. First, though I understand that NBA basketball is not to be confused with choir practice, Nocioni frequently crosses my ethical line with his flopping and cheap shots.
Second, I’ve reluctantly concluded it’s unfair to compare Nocioni to DD because, alas, Nocioni is better. I don’t mean “better” because of all the cutesy stuff he gets away with that helps his team. I mean “better” in the legitimate aspects of the game.

At 26, Nocioni is a better jumpshooter than DD ever was, and DD was quite good. Nocioni is better from mid-range as well as from 20-feet and beyond. He also elevates off the dribble higher than DD a handy attribute when the game situation requires you to create your own shot.

DD shot .432 for his career; Nocioni this season (his second in the NBA) shot .461 despite taking 28 percent of his shots from beyond the arc (and sinking them at an impressive .391 clip). At the free-throw line DD, shot .699 for his career; Nocioni this season shot .843.

Nocioni is a better ballhandler and driver than DD was, and DD was no slouch. When he’s at the 4, the Bulls rapid ball movement produces an open shot for a good shooter in the manner of the Knick title teams.

I thought DD might have an edge on the boards, but look at what Nocioni yanked down when his minutes overall and at power forward went up late in the regular season. In consecutive games from March 28 to April 12, he garnered 10, 11, 11, 12, 13, 10, 17 and 11 rebounds. He’s averaging 9.5 through the first four playoff games against Miami, and he’s doing this in an era when rebounds are less plentiful than in DD’s day.

Nocioni is a feisty scrapper on defense Pat Riley likens him to such world-class past and present pests as Keith Askins, Dan Majerle and Bruce Bowen and the Bulls become very quick and active on that side of
the ball when he’s at the 4 spot. He’s a good on-the-ball defender and an excellent help defender. Granted, as a helper he benefits enormously from the foolish, bad-for-the-game generosity with which NBA refs reward floppers and late-arriving help defenders with bogus charging calls. But Nocioni excels as well at the legitimate aspects of defense. He and guards Kirk Hinrich and Chris Duhon are the pillars of a Bulls' D that, for a second straight season, held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage than did any other team.

Twenty years from now fans will have forgotten all about DeBusschere as they debate who will be “the next Nocioni.” As for “the next Larry Bird,” that’s an easy call: Dirk Diaw.

Two guys squeezed into one uniform might be a tad cozy, but merely to approach Bird you need a tall guy who shoots like Dirk Nowitzki and passes like Boris Diaw. As individuals, neither can rebound or pilfer passes like Bird. But as Dirk Diaw the game’s first four-handed Euro hybrid all things are possible.

Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.

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