October 8, 2001

First Open Practice

Editor’s Note: This column was edited for grammar when it was posted on SonicsCentral 9/03. – KP

Talk is cheap.

Sonics fans have heard a lot in the week since last Monday's media day about the return to form of Vin Baker. But the proof is in the results, and the first opportunity for the public to see the results of Vin's off-season training came Sunday night, as the Sonics held the first of three open practices that they will have this month. Of course, your faithful Sonic columnist was there.

Immediately after entering the gym, it was clear that the camera had neither added nor subtracted any pounds from Vin. He is clearly in the best shape he has been in since his first season in Seattle. But I was not yet convinced. Basketball and fitness do not always go hand in hand, and just because a player is in shape doesn't mean his game will improve.

The rest of the reported 750 fans at Skyline High School were excited by Baker's performance in three-on-two drills, cheering after Baker slams, but I personally cared little about his performance in drills. What I was concerned about was the scrimmage.

In the first half, Vin was only okay. He did record some memorable plays, most notably a successful three-point play, but I remained unconvinced. Even for me, a noted Vin pessimist, the third quarter was enough to give me hope. In the lane, the most important thing that Baker did was hit contested shots and play powerfully. Contact was not as troublesome, and I think it was actually positive that he did not go to the free throw line much in the second half, as it meant he wasn't making it appear as if he was being fouled. On the outside, Vin's jumper was smooth as it has ever been. When he left the scrimmage with less than a minute left in the third quarter, Baker received a resounding ovation.

Though one scrimmage does not a season make, and inconsistency was one of Vin's main problems last season, I can't help but be more optimistic about the Sonics chances now that I have seen Vin in action. If -- and this is still a huge if -- Baker can return to form, there is little doubt in my mind that the Sonics will make the playoffs and perhaps have the wherewithal to climb as high as fourth or fifth in the Western Conference. Okay, yes, this is all pre-season optimism, but without that, as fans, where are we? Of course, Baker had the Sonics' other top two big men -- Calvin Booth and Predrag Drobnjak -- on his side during the scrimmage. Scoring on Art Long is one thing, Karl Malone another altogether. Pre-season games will probably tell more.

Briefly, let me touch on the other guys in the practice:

Gary Payton -- We all know that GP likes to go a step slow during practices, so it's difficult to really analyze his performance. What is true is that Payton seemed awfully reluctant to shoot throughout the practice, so maybe he really is buying into the Sonics' plans.

Shammond Williams -- Williams played primarily alongside Desmond Mason, which meant he had to run his team's offense, and he did a very credible job of this. Not a lot of penetration out of Williams last night.

Earl Watson -- Watson suffered a heel injury on Saturday night, and is day-to-day. He did not participate in the practice.

Anthony Johnson -- Johnson impressed defensively during his time in the game, harassing Eddie Gill into several turnovers. On offense, Johnson didn't do much.

Eddie Gill -- Gill appeared lost in the second quarter of the scrimmage, turning the ball over repeatedly as his team fell well behind on the scoreboard. On defense, he did not stand out. Gill did nothing to change his likely fate as one of the first cuts.

Desmond Mason -- On offense, Mason did not look much improved, struggling on the perimeter. However, his defense -- largely against Payton -- was very good. Mason tied the second-half score (it was reset at halftime) at 43 just prior to the buzzer with a spectacular tip jam.

Brent Barry -- Typical Barry. A couple of times he tried to do much and turned the ball over, and was efficient -- though not aggressive enough -- from the perimeter.

Rashard Lewis -- Rashard looked very good on the perimeter, and seemed improved in terms of man defense. Didn't do much on the boards.

Vladimir Radmanovic -- Rad looked very good during the scrimmage, also draining from the perimeter, and playing some solid defense (though he appears a bit vulnerable to ball fakes). He does NEED a haircut!

JaRon Rush -- Rush looked just okay. It's questionable whether he's quick enough to consistently get into the lane in the NBA, and if he is forced to rely on his jumper, he's in trouble.

Jamal Kendrick -- It would take a miracle for Kendrick to make the team, and a shock for him not to be amongst the first cuts. Neither of those things was evident last evening.

Olumide Oyedeji -- Nothing new from Oyedeji. Good board work, good athleticism, little polish or scoring ability.

Art Long -- Long played heavily, and held his own. He is very athletic for a power forward, but his lack of size hurts him in the post and on the boards.

Eddie Elisma -- Elisma did not look in sync during the scrimmage, and did little to make fans remember his work of last training camp. He did have one nice play, where he took away a rebound from Drobnjak for an easy layup.

Antonio Harvey -- By my count, Harvey launched three 15-18 foot jumpers, all of them badly missed. That has to stop. Otherwise, he was solid on defense.

Calvin Booth -- Booth's results weren't necessarily good -- or pretty -- but he looked like he can capably handle the center position for the Sonics this season. Booth did not demonstrate much in the way of shot blocking, surprisingly.

Predrag Drobnjak -- Drobnjak looked very solid on offense, operating as a high post center a la Arvydas Sabonis. His jumper was smooth, and Drobnjak also dropped a pair of dimes from outside. Defensively, he was solid.

Jerome James -- James was pretty impressive as his side's top big man. After dropping an amazing 80 pounds over the last year, he's now very light on his feet for a 7-footer. His rebounding was fantastic in the first quarter, as he grabbed at least five or so rebounds.