Stoudemire makes strong stride in return to action

Updated: July 9, 2006, 12:48 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- No hammer dunks. No blocks resembling a volleyball spike. There really wasn't a single gasp-inducing moment in the desert Friday where you were you moved to exclaim: That's Amare.

But that's nitpicking.

The only mission for Amare Stoudemire in his long-awaited return to game conditions was running freely. The aim was moving with the confidence he didn't have back in March, when he had to abort his comeback from microfracture knee surgery after three games.

"This was the first time I was out there just playing," Stoudemire said. "Not thinking."

That's all his bosses wanted to see, but Stoudemire managed to give them a little bit extra at UNLV's Cox Pavilion. Sporting a new No. 1 on his jersey and logging 30 minutes in a 40-minute game in the Vegas Summer League, Stoudemire was sufficiently active, spry and controlled to total 21 points and eight rebounds in a 91-83 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves ... while mixing in a handful of slick passes that Steve Nash would have gladly claimed as his own.

"If you were seeing him every day like we are, you'd realize how much he's making strides," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, who now doubles as the club's head of basketball operations. "Obviously he's still a ways away, but we still have three months to get him all the way back.

"You can already see the improvement he's made in his shooting and ballhandling, how much he's worked on those things. His athleticism will start to come back. We see it every week, and we're happy with that."

The Suns' satisfaction was justified. It was clear from the start, when Stoudemire rung up a quick nine points in the first quarter, that his movement was more natural than it ever looked during that brief March return.

A step slow? Certainly. Isolated a few times in the fourth quarter against an ESPN.com columnist -- Wolves forward Paul Shirley -- Stoudemire declined to drive at Shirley and the packed paint behind him and took the jumper instead. Nor did Stoudemire attack the rim with his trademark ferocity; his only dunk came after a whistle and didn't count.

Stoudemire also resisted the urge to contest every shot defensively, as you might have expected in this loose setting, and didn't chase rebounds as much as they found him. Yet to his credit, Stoudemire didn't try to dominate the ball, either. Any urge to make this his show, surrounded by a team full of NBA wannabes, was undetectable.

Plus ...

Stoudemire's passing stood out more than anything ... and who was expecting that? Though credited with only one assist -- against six turnovers and seven fouls in a league with no foul limit -- he had at least five deft dishes in the lane and on the move. Stoudemire likewise drained jumpers with ease and was spotted leading the fast break himself after multiple rebounds, which is another new wrinkle for No. 1.

Not bad for a guy who was forced to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in April to follow the dreaded microfracture procedure on his left knee last October.

Not bad for a guy, furthermore, whose team flew into town on the morning of the game.

"If we can beat them when he's playing, he's obviously not up to his usual standards," said Shirley, a former Sun with extensive practice-floor experience checking Stoudemire. "But I thought he looked pretty good. That's a tough situation when you haven't played in a long time and all eyes are on you to go make something happen."

Shirley also noted that Stoudemire, known for years as a player who wanted only to drive right, clearly worked on driving left in his time away. It's as if Stoudemire is so talented, Shirley suggested, that he can be programmed "like a machine."

"The knees feel great," Stoudemire said. "I was going as hard as I could. I felt pretty explosive out there, something I haven't felt in the past two weeks [of practices]."

"When I came back the last time, the next day was hard. Now I can play back-to-back, I can [practice] two-a-days and come back strong. And I've still got three months [until training camp]. I've got time to get better."

Stoudemire gets an immediate opportunity to prove his sturdiness Saturday, when the Suns complete a back-to-back set against Channing Frye, David Lee and rookie Renaldo Balkman from New York's summer-league squad. Stoudemire is scheduled to play only three of Phoenix's five games in Vegas, but Suns assistant Phil Weber -- who's in charge of overseeing all of Amare's skill drills every offseason -- is predicting an amendment to the schedule after what he termed "a perfect first step."

"I'll be surprised if he doesn't want to play all five," Weber said.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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