Boykins becomes big deal in Denver

DENVER -- Just before the regular season began, the Denver Nuggets met their fans and sponsors during a tip-off luncheon on their practice court at the Pepsi Center. During the annual event, general manager Kiki Vandeweghe has kept it interesting by asking players questions written down by some of the attendees. After asking newcomer Earl Boykins a fan question, Vandeweghe had one of his own.

He asked Boykins if he was surprised that coaching consultant Doug Moe, also the Nuggets' winningest coach, strongly pushed for him during free agency.

"No," Boykins quickly replied. "Doug knows talent."

Boykins, just 5-foot-5 and 133 pounds, received stability for the first time in his career after signing a five-year, $13.7 million deal with the Nuggets last summer. With Denver jumping out to a 4-4 start, including wins over San Antonio and Sacramento, the NBA and basketball fans everywhere are starting to believe Boykins has talent, too.

"In this league, it takes a little while for everyone to catch on," Boykins said. "This league is always a little late on everything as far as national news. When you're on a team that is not supposed to be very good and you win a couple of games, a lot of the attention comes from winning. If we were losing, I don't think I would be getting the attention."

Until last season, Boykins didn't receive much attention. He averaged 25.7 points and 5.1 assists as a senior for Eastern Michigan during the 1997-98 season and was an honorable mention All-America selection. But because of his height, he was overlooked in the 1998 draft, which saw the likes of Corey Benjamin, Miles Simon and Tyson Wheeler get their names called. All are no longer in the league.

"That night was hard," Boykins said. "At the college level, I had done everything a point guard could do. Looking at the guys that got drafted, I thought I was better than those guys."

During the next four years, Boykins played for Rockford of the CBA, New Jersey, Cleveland, Orlando and the Clippers. With Golden State last season, he got a chance to finally prove himself as he averaged 8.8 points and 3.3 assists in 19.4 minutes per game and ranked 10th in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.03 to 1) and 14th in free-throw percentage (.865). Having built a reputation as a clutch fourth-quarter player, Boykins finished seventh in the Sixth Man Award balloting.

"Eventually, if I got a chance to play consistent minutes, I knew I would be able to get a good contract," Boykins said.

Despite Boykins' exploits at Golden State, the Warriors looked elsewhere once he became a free agent. The Warriors traded for point guards Nick Van Exel and Avery Johnson and signed Speedy Claxton as a free agent. With Denver showing stronger interest than any other team, the Cleveland native went with the Nuggets and was able to comfortably buy a home outside of his hometown of Cleveland for the first time in his career.

"The contract they gave me did more for my family," said Boykins, who is close to buying a house in Denver. "They don't have to worry about where they are going to be in the future. Myself, personally, as long as I get minutes, I'll play on a different team every year. I don't care. I just want to play."

While Golden State is now just another stop on his NBA résumé, Boykins has nothing but praise for his former employer.

"I have no problems with (the Warriors)," Boykins said. "They gave me an opportunity to sign a five-year deal (with Denver). That's how I am looking at it. I was able to prove that I could play backup in this league. And if it wasn't for Golden State, I don't think I'd be in the position that I am in (now)."

Now, Boykins is one of the Nuggets' key players. Without him, Denver would have a losing record.

In the team's first eight games, Boykins came off the bench to score in double figures in all but one. He nailed a game-winning 3-pointer at Chicago on Nov. 10, scored a season-high 19 points against the Clippers on Nov. 17 and stole the show from Nuggets rookie forward Carmelo Anthony and Cleveland rookie swingman LeBron James by scoring 16 second-half points to lead Denver to a win on Nov. 5 in Cleveland. A night earlier, Boykins scored 16 points in the second quarter to keep the Nuggets in a game at Indiana.

All this from a player who stands just 5-5. Already, Boykins' play has made him a leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

"I think about (the award), but I know it comes with success," Boykins said. "It's very difficult to win any type of individual award if your team is not performing. For me to win any award or accolade, we have to win."

How big of a winner does Boykins think the Nuggets can be? Well, he's talking playoffs, which hasn't happened in Denver since 1995. While such a task definitely will be tough in the Western Conference, a healthy center Marcus Camby, continued strong play by Anthony and second-year forward Nene and steady contributions from one of the NBA's best point-guard duos in starter Andre Miller and Boykins could get the Nuggets fighting for that elusive postseason bid during the season's final stretch.

"I've never played in a playoff game," Boykins said. "That's my goal. The first thing people say is, 'Why did you sign with Denver if you want to make the playoffs? Last year, they won 17 games.' But I take it as a challenge. This is a challenge here for a team that is up and coming. That's what I want. I'd rather be on a team that is up and coming and be part of the future than be part of the team that's already made and just be another player."

Boykins' stature belies his strength and toughness. He can bench-press as much as 315 pounds, which makes it tough for other guards to push him around. He is not only super cat-quick, but his shot is too fast for 7-footers to even block. And, on and off the court, he hates to lose.

After so many losing seasons, the Nuggets definitely needed an attitude like Boykins'.

"I just love winning," he said. "Ever since I was younger, I always hated losing. I cried every basketball game I lost until I got into high school. ... But I got mature. The pain was still there. But I didn't express it the same way as when I was younger."

"I believe I can win. It's just that simple," he added. "I believe that no matter what happens during the game or how badly my team is playing, I believe I can win."

Marc J. Spears, who covers the NBA and Denver Nuggets for The Denver Post, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.