Just because Kenyon Martin was the first overall pick, don’t expect him to let up. Ever.
Drafted with the first pick in the 2000 NBA Draft, Kenyon Martin felt the pressure of living up to the top pick billing. As a big man, he was asked to save a New Jersey Nets team that was in desperate need of help after going through some sour seasons in the 90’s. Kenyon came through. His intensity and work ethic earned him the ink he got at SLAM as well as two Eastern Conference Championships, helping lead the Nets to their best season in NBA history in the 2001-02 season. Today Blake Griffin stands in the same position with the LA Clippers. Although they don’t share the same exact game, if Griffin took notice of how Martin’s mental aggression and “never satisfied” mentality led him to where it did, he might also be able to lead the Clippers out their (seems like forever) sour seasons. –Franklyn Calle
by Alan Paul
Think you know when things started to turn around for the Nets?
Conventional wisdom has it that the curse of selling Dr. J for cold, hard cash way back in 1976 after two ABA titles was lifted in July, 2001, when they got Jason Kidd for Stephon Marbury shortly after swapping Eddie Griffin for Richard Jefferson and Jason Collins. But as sweet as those deals have proven to be, the tide really began turning a year earlier. That’s when they grabbed Kenyon Martin. And just like that, the team that wouldn’t have had any luck at all if it wasn’t for bad luck got…lucky. Real lucky, as it turned out. Consider, in order, those selected just below KMart in the 2000 NBA Draft: Stromile Swift, Darius Miles, Marcus Fizer, Mike Miller, DerMarr Johnson and Chris Mihm…and, well, the rest of the Lottery doesn’t get much better. Think the Nets would have made two straight Finals appearances with any of them in Martin’s stead?
With Martin on hand, the Nets have turned themselves into an Eastern power, and he’s been at the center of it all, almost as much as JKidd. Three years of steady improvement, of ever-increasing confidence, a growing court intelligence and an ability to funnel his intense aggression into his game instead of insane fouls have turned him into one of the game’s best young power players. As good as he was all season, averaging 16.7 points and 8.3 rebounds per in 77 games, he kicked it up several notches in the first three rounds of the playoffs, leading the Nets with 20.7 ppg and 9.1 rpg while clearly serving as their emotional leader and defensive cornerstone.
This just a year after he seemed on the verge of spontaneously combusting, racking up flagrant fouls at an alarming rate and earning a growing rep as an out-of-control thug, and just two years after he shattered his right leg for the second time in a year and seemed destined to represent the hard-luck franchise’s most flamboyant
disaster yet. After all, as bad as first-round picks Yinka Dare, Rex Walters and Ed O’Bannon were, none of them were first overall. What happened? What suddenly clicked to vault Martin into elite player territory? Martin looks annoyed at the very question.
“I don’t know, man,” he says, sprawled across a folding chair on the side of the Nets’ practice court in a mid-Finals media session. “This is my third year, and I’ve grown up a lot. It’s just maturing, I guess. Some people get it, and some people don’t. I think I got it.”
He got it good, and he was simply great throughout the playoffs. In the first round, he crushed Milwaukee to the tune of 22.3 ppg and 10 rpg. Then he humiliated and abused Antoine Walker, holding the Celtics gunner to 34 percent shooting and 14 ppg. It’s almost a certainty that in the process he took over Walker’s All-Star berth, which he might just hold down for years to come. Not all of the Nets will be happy to see Martin finally get his due, however, since each slight—being left out of the 2003 ASG, off the Olympic team and ignored by the NBA all-defensive teams—only seems to motivate him.
“He’s one of the top power forwards in the League and he gets a little pissed off when he’s not recognized as such,” says backup pg Anthony Johnson. “Every time he gets passed over for some recognition, his back gets more up. The playoffs are the biggest stage for him to go out and show he’s pissed off and why he shouldn’t be overlooked.”
After making Walker his Farnsworth, Martin’s next assignment was Ben Wallace, the guy he no doubt thinks has gotten much of his acclaim. He took it to the Pistons with sheer relentlessness, and while he certainly didn’t dominate Big Ben, he did neutralize Detroit’s edge. Up 11 early in the fourth quarter of Game 2, the Pistons were on the verge of tying the series before Martin took over. He scored 10 points the next four times he touched the ball and anchored the D that bullied the Pistons into scoring just five points in the final 5:43. Just like that, the Nets swept two on Detroit’s court and the series was over. Watching from the Pistons bench, veteran Danny Manning was impressed.
“Kenyon has continued to develop his offensive skills every year, and he’s made himself very difficult to guard because of his relentlessness, which has always been there, and his skills, which keep expanding,” says Manning. “His defense has been tremendous since day one, and his offense is improving to the point that he is going to be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.”
As he has shown repeatedly throughout the playoffs, Martin has become a solid and at times dominant offensive force without yet developing a true post move. He still relies on his incredible athleticism, which combines quickness and strength, an extremely quick and powerful leap and soft hands to finish around the rim. “The day will come in terms of a patented move, but in the meantime, no one has the combination of quickness, strength and toughness to stop him,’” says Rick Mahorn. Now the Pistons radio announcer, in his Bad Boys days Mahorn was one of the nastiest power forwards to ever play, and he sees a lot of himself in Martin. “He’s me without the big booty and with a whole lot of athleticism and skill,” Mahorn says with a laugh.
Martin’s reward for his stellar playoff performances was a date with Tim Duncan. At the Nets’ last pre-Finals practice, Martin was repeatedly asked how he would cover Duncan and if the MVP intimidated him. He understandably grew annoyed, but continued to answer with some form of “I’m just going to play. He has to guard me too.” He started off strong against the Spurs but, flu-addled and worn out, he struggled in the last two games and finished at 14.7 ppg (on 34 percent shooting, thanks to his combined 5 of 31 from the floor in Games 5 and 6) and a solid 10 rpg and 2.3 bpg.
Throughout, he was one of the few Nets to never appear flustered or intimidated oncourt, which is not surprising. During last year’s Lakers’ mercy killing, many Nets looked awed, but KMart seemed inspired—and never more so than in Game 4 when he dropped 35 points and left everything on the floor. He didn’t see the same effort from everyone and he wasn’t shy about making his feelings known. “You’re supposed to show up,” Martin said in the postgame press room. “It was the most important game of our lives, man, and people didn’t show up to play. I can live with losing. I can’t live with people not showing up to play.”
This was widely and correctly interpreted as, primarily, a swipe at Keith Van Horn. Before long, KVH and Todd MacCulloch were sent to Philly for Dikembe Mutombo. Deke became a $16 million bench warmer, but moving KVH not only gave Richard Jefferson more minutes (though his often underwhelming Finals performance made his Olympic team selection even more surreal), it also allowed Martin to shift back to power forward. Remember, Martin was a center in college and Van Horn’s presence forced him to log many minutes at the three.
“Kenyon has become a much more reliable rebounder this year—I can count on eight a game, minimum, which wasn’t the case before,” says Nets’ coach Byron Scott. “A lot of that has to do with the simple fact that he’s playing power forward now, which keeps him under the basket where he more belongs.” Martin agrees with this assessment, but he differs with his coach’s thoughts that the two years at the three benefited his overall game by forcing him to grow more comfortable putting the ball on the floor, shooting short jumpers and defending away from the hoop. “That stuff came with practice and just learning the game, not because I played the three,” Martin insists.
Whatever—his game has clearly expanded and, as Rodney Rogers notes, all he has to do is continue working on his perimeter game to become an unstoppable offensive power. “I’m always telling Kenyon to keep working on his jumper and move out to being comfortable up to 18 feet,” says Rogers. “If he can do that, who is going to defend him and how are they going to do it? It’s coming.”
To get an idea of where Martin’s game is headed, it’s instructive to look at where it’s been. He was the runaway national Player of the Year as a college senior at Cincinnati, a dominant center for the team favored to win the NCAA title before Martin broke his leg in the Conference USA tournament. But Martin was not that hotly recruited out of Adams High School in Dallas, and while he was a defensive anchor by his sophomore year at Cincy, he didn’t become an offensive star until his senior year.
His improvement highlights how hard Martin works, a fact that’s easy to overlook in a player blessed with his athleticism. Cincy coach Bob Huggins has called Martin his favorite player he’s ever coached, in part because of his willingness to work endlessly, learn the game and police his teammates. It’s all part of Martin’s inner flame, which burns at extreme heat. Buried amongst the jungle of tattoos on his arms are some Chinese figures that he says spell out “Never Satisfied.” The same message is engraved in English into all of his Reeboks. “That’s my thing,” he told a newspaper as a college senior, shortly after he got the Chinese tat, his fourth. “You never settle. You can always do better.”
It’s that ferocity and unquenchable desire that has filtered through the Nets and is almost as important a contribution as any points he will ever score or shot he’ll ever block. “He’s our emotional leader,” says Johnson. “Jay is our strategic leader, but we depend on Kenyon to supply the fire.”
Martin burns with such intensity that he’s not exactly approachable in the locker room. He can be a brooding presence, the kind of guy who emits an “I don’t suffer fools gladly” vibe, whom you don’t think about addressing without a very clear idea of what you’re going to ask. It’s an attitude that will probably never see him get voted on to any all-interview teams, but is sure to make him a highly valued teammate and employee.
“Kenyon is emblematic of what you’re looking for in an NBA star: someone who is constantly working on his game,” says Hall of Famer and ABC color man Bill Walton. “His story is incredible: after being chosen number one, injuries led to a slow start. Then he gets in nothing but trouble because he is too amped and fights and flagrantly fouls all the time. Then all of a sudden he blossoms into what everyone had envisioned in college.”
Most impressively, Martin cut out what Walton calls “all that nonsense” without neutering himself. He’s also improved his already-impressive strength without bulking up too much and endangering his quickness. “You can be strong without being huge,” says Martin. “A lot of guys don’t realize that, but I would never bulk up too much more because the combination of quickness and strength, that’s my game.”
And it’s a game that’s sure to continue improving and impressing. “Kenyon already defends anybody they ask him to, and the next thing you know he’s going to have the same flexibility on offense, playing the three, four and five,” says Mahorn. “He plays with a lot of heart and desire, and he’s going to do what he needs to do to round out his game for the same reason he’s already improved as much as he has: he takes challenges. That is what it takes to become great, so watch out.”