Published February 11, 2010
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rick Adelman remembers drafting a raw, inexperienced 18-year-old from Alabama in 2001 while he was coaching the Sacramento Kings.
Adelman wasn't sure what to do with Gerald Wallace.
"He played one year of college and he pretty much played zone his whole career," said Adelman, now coach of the Houston Rockets. "He just ran and dunked."
On Thursday, a little less than nine years later, Wallace boarded a plane for Dallas as the first All-Star in Charlotte Bobcats history. It's the culmination of a rocky road from unhappy college kid to Sacramento benchwarmer to expansion draft pick to a player who has finally combined his freakish athletic ability with a well-rounded game.
And if averaging 18.8 points and 10.9 rebounds with an overflowing collection of acrobatic, above-the-rim plays isn't enough, his current coach doesn't think the 6-foot-7 small forward has reached his potential.
"He reminds me every day I watch him that he has so much more to improve on," Bobcats coach Larry Brown said. "And that's not a knock on where he is. He's made the All-Star team, so obviously people have recognized that."
Growing up in Childersburg, Ala., population 4,579, Wallace was the can't-miss star. He earned national player of the year awards in high school, was a McDonald's All-American and was expected to become a state hero down the road at Alabama.
It didn't happen. Wallace didn't mesh with coach Mark Gottfried and knew right away he'd only spend one year there. Wallace routinely jokes with his teammates that he didn't go to college.
"The first week of his freshman year he was ready to come out," Brown said. "I don't know how much he really got out of a really important year."
Wallace was the 25th pick in the 2001 draft but never played more than 54 games or average more than 4.7 points in three seasons with the Kings, then a Western Conference power.
"It was very frustrating," Wallace said. "But at the same time you can't be mad because they won 60-something games before I got there. They won 60-something games the three years I was there. Who are you going to complain to?"
The Kings' loaded roster left them with a difficult decision when Charlotte was awarded a team to replace the New Orleans-bound Hornets. The Kings thought about leaving Chris Webber unprotected for the 2004 expansion draft thinking the Bobcats wouldn't take on his big contract. But the Kings decided to protect Webber and leave Wallace exposed.
Wallace's life was soon upended. He went from a benchwarmer on a winner to a starter on a team full of castoffs that went 18-64 in its debut season.
"It makes the season long, it makes it hard," Wallace said. "My mom just told me, 'Keep trying, keep going, keep going and eventually you'll all start moving.'"
Wallace's scoring average improved from 11.1 to 15.2 to 18.1, setting himself up to sign a six-year, $57 million deal in the 2007 offseason.
Wallace averaged 19.4 points in Sam Vincent's lone season as coach in 2007-08 before Larry Brown arrived prior to last season, paving the way for another growth spurt.
"He took me, a rough product, and chipped away all the rough edges," Wallace said of Brown.
While Wallace's scoring average last season dipped to 16.6 points, his shooting percentage jumped from 45 to 48 percent. He averaged nearly two more rebounds a game, had 32 fewer turnovers and nine more blocks while gambling less on defense.
"The one thing I found out about him when I first got here is that he just wants to be coached," said Brown, whose 1,300 NBA and ABA coaching wins rank third all-time. "He's been through so many coaches and different situations. Then he played power forward a lot since he's been here. So he's never really had a niche."
Many felt how Wallace would react to the demanding Brown would define his career. He was almost traded before the start of last season, but soon became one of Brown's favorite players as he absorbed his teaching.
"He's become a better ballhandler. He's become a better shooter. He's become less mistake-prone," Brown said. "Obviously, the rebounding has been huge. He's learning how to guard on the perimeter, which was an area I thought he was way behind. There's not one thing I think he hasn't gotten better at. And I think he's got so much more."
The 27-year-old Wallace ranks seventh in the NBA in rebounding. He's shooting 48 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range, while increasing his blocks and cutting down further on his turnovers.
It's helped push the Bobcats (26-25) into sixth place in the Eastern Conference as they eye their first playoff berth. Wallace's All-Star selection is a big deal for the fledgling franchise. Every member of the organization signed a congratulatory poster that sits in Wallace's locker.
"When we found out, you could see the smile on his face ear to ear," teammate Nazr Mohammed said. "He couldn't wipe the smile off his face."
The good news continued Wednesday when Wallace was included in a pool of players to be selected for this summer's world championships and the 2012 U.S. Olympic team.
"That kind of athleticism is something that we want in this pool and on the two teams we'll put together," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're going to play fast and play really hard defensively, and I think that Gerald will do both of those things."
Yes, Wallace is no longer just a flashy dunker.
"What he's doing on the boards is incredible for a guy his size," Adelman said. "He's learned how to play the game."