By Kevin Cott
Special to Page 2

    "This is my year. I've never felt like the way I feel this season."
    -- Carmelo Anthony

You wonder if Carmelo appreciates just how much is riding on those words. In a year full of intriguing subplots, ranging from Joe Johnson's contract to the Kobe/Phil reunion to Vince's ongoing quest for a heart, Carmelo's pivotal Year 3 trumps them all. Quietly, he's got more at stake this season than Nate Newton during a highway pullover.

Here's the logic: With a number of established superstars (Duncan, KG, Iverson, Kidd) starting to head down the other side of their career paths, a group of younger, trendier stars (LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Amare Stoudemire, Dwight Howard) seem poised to step right in, a development that should have David Stern randomly kicking his heels in the air when he walks down the street. Additionally, LeBron and Wade have all but solidified themselves as the future 1A and 1B of perimeter players.

Thing is, all this movement means that if the music stopped right now, Carmelo would be the one left standing without a chair. For someone who left college with more hype than the 10th-grade Schea Cotton, this matters. LeBron was always the Chosen One, but 'Melo was supposed to lag just a few steps behind, to keep The King from getting complacent. One heroic freshman year at Syracuse and the role was unquestioningly Anthony's to lose.

Yet the 21-year-old 'Melo is already at an unexpected career crossroads. After up-and-down seasons, the verdict is this: 'Melo is getting a free ride and a raw deal at the same time. On one hand, he rode an extraordinary college season into NBA poster-boy status, resulting in immediate star power that currently exceeds his game. On the other hand, he got lumped with LeBron into a forced Magic-and-Larry comparison that was neither accurate nor just. LeBron's game is more reminiscent of a souped-up Magic than Jordan, but status-wise, the Jordan comparison fits well. He's likely to have no on-court equal (including the silky-smooth Wade). LeBron's challenge will be the legacy of perfection left by Jordan, and although it should be fascinating to watch it play out, it's also crystal clear.

'Melo, however, is a much greater mystery. He's somewhat like Denzel Washington's maverick narcotics officer in "Training Day" -- mesmerizing and charismatic beyond belief at first, replaced by a gradual uneasiness, ultimately reaching the point where he either puts our concerns at bay by becoming everything we had hoped, or disappointingly turns out to be everything we had feared. 'Melo could become this era's Bernard King, or he could become another Glenn Robinson. He could be a perennial All-Star with an offensive game so pure that it's practically poetic, or he could be a talented journeyman. The talent is unquestioned; the mystery is what makes 'Melo tick.

Anthony's personality seems to mirror the confusing nature of his game. On the surface, he seems like an affable, good-natured guy with just the right amount of competitive fire. Although it turned out to be misguided, remember that he embraced the LeBron challenge and Magic/Bird comparisons upon entering the league, even fueling the debate by calmly asserting that he should have been the consensus top pick. He had a chip on his shoulder, and we ate it up. Jim Boeheim talked about 'Melo as if he were a son, claiming that he had never enjoyed coaching a player more. We heard that, behind the scenes, 'Melo had a wicked sense of humor. He seemed to be everything we could ask for in a potential icon.

The first season went according to plan, with 'Melo leading the Nuggets to a surprise playoff berth, even prompting the short-sighted to claim that he had lived up to the advanced billing of "better than LeBron." It was a foolish claim, but the point is that he produced enough to at least spark the argument. He seemed primed.

But then Athens came and 'Melo showed the first signs of being a malcontent. The prodigy took a backseat as he pouted about playing time and then jacked up the first shot available once he got in. Last season was no better. It wasn't the inconsistent production, or even the cliché sophomore slump ('Melo's numbers -- points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per game -- all went south); it's that his overall game seemed to level off. Two years into his NBA career and he's still relying on sheer talent to get by. He takes the quick shot, forces things with just the slightest provocation, and oftentimes seems to be more Quentin Richardson than LeBron James. Above all, he suddenly looked like someone who slinks away when the game stops coming so easily.

Truthfully, it's a harsh assessment to put on a 21-year-old. So why not cut 'Melo the same slack and give him a few more years before conclusively judging him? Put simply, because he wasn't supposed to be like the rest of us. It's one thing when discussing a good player (think Chauncey Billups), where time is a luxury that can be had. But, unfair as they might be, the expectations for 'Melo go far beyond "good," and with higher stakes comes a sharper curve.

That's why 'Melo's upcoming season is of such importance. Seven months from now, we should have a much better idea of just which path 'Melo is destined to take. He may end up a career tease -- another Big Dog with the same weak bite. Or, hopefully, he'll become one of a handful of truly prolific scorers in the league; a superstar with a legit inside/outside game, a first step far too quick for his size, and range that makes him utterly unguardable with the right shot selection. Or maybe he'll ultimately hover somewhere in between -- bankable leading man material, but in that forgettable Keanu sort of way. Maybe that's all we should have asked for in the first place.

Superstars, in the truest sense of the word, don't blossom late. You can tell early on, and after this season, we'll most likely know if Carmelo has it in him.

But fear not, Nuggets fans -- you could have had Darko.

Kevin Cott is the intern for the Sports Guy's World.