Saturday, December 18, 1999

DerMarr would do well to emulate Martin




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[johnson]
DerMarr Johnson
(AP photo)

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        DerMarr Johnson is probably just passing through. He is one of those precocious freshmen who enters college basketball with his exit strategy already scripted.

        He will give Bob Huggins one year at the University of Cincinnati, and then he will find out exactly how many millions he might be worth as a pro basketball prospect. Given Johnson's talent, his temperament and his timing, there is a very good chance tonight's Crosstown Shootout will be the only one he ever sees. If he is going to work up a healthy hatred for Xavier University, he may have to hurry.

        “I didn't know this game was a big deal until yesterday,” Johnson said Friday at the Shoemaker Center. “I didn't know guys were so hyped up about it. It's just another game to me.”

        If DerMarr Johnson was not already marking time in Clifton, his 23-point onslaught Thursday night in St. Louis made a powerful argument for moving on. A 6-foot-9 shooting guard with 3-point range and a wingspan the width of Wyoming is as rare and precious as a vow of silence from Dick Vitale. If Johnson can survive a season of Huggins' high-decibel advice, the NBA should be comparative child's play.

Mind on next game
        “That's been an option for me for a while,” Johnson said of playing professionally. “I know it's there, but I've got to concentrate on what's right in front of me. My mind is on the next game.”

        Johnson has been over this ground so often that his answers tend to be a little short on spontaneity. He responds to the inevitable questions with practiced evasions, revealing neither his plans nor his thought processes. This is a common and curious phenomenon: Hundreds of high-profile college athletes are striving toward the same goal — to get rich playing a game — but they often behave as if acknowledging it would endanger it, as if candor were cancer, as if they were terrified of saying something they hadn't cleared with the coach.

        Only DerMarr Johnson can decide how he is going to conduct his affairs. But if he prefers to keep his mouth closed on the NBA question, he would be wise to keep his mind open. UC officials are hoping he heeds the example of Kenyon Martin, whose patience is about to be rewarded with multiple millions. They would hope Johnson is chastened by the experience of Dontonio Wingfield, who left UC after one year, thoroughly unprepared for the NBA.

Stayed to polish skills
        “You can get there or you can have a career,” Huggins told a Shootout luncheon crowd Friday at the Convention Center. “Kenyon wants to have a career.”

        Martin was an honorable mention on last year's All-American team and could have cashed in last spring. He chose to wait, to polish his skills and expand his repertoire, and he's now looking at the likelihood of being an NBA lottery pick. Martin had 19 points, 17 rebounds and four assists in St. Louis — a performance that prompted comparisons with Bill Russell and Karl Malone on the ESPN broadcast.

        It was suggested that his effort might have enhanced Martin's first NBA contract by as much as $10 million.

        “Maybe a couple (million),” he said, laughing. “I just showed that I can do some different things — play with my back to the basket, play facing the basket. Everybody said I can't score, I can't do this or that. My progress has shown people why I came back to school.”

        Different players progress at different rates. Kenyon Martin played 45 college basketball games before he scored as many as 20 points in one night. DerMarr Johnson did it in his first month on the job. NBA scouts tend to pick up on points like that. They'd like Johnson to get stronger, to gain experience and maturity, but they'd gladly take him as he is.

        “I just told him to do whatever's right for him,” Kenyon Martin said. “Sit down and talk about what you want to do. If you feel you're ready, go for it. If you have any insecurity, you have to talk about it.”

        If DerMarr Johnson has any insecurity, he hasn't shown it. Crosstown Shootout spectators are advised to get a good look at him, while they still can.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.



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