Can Melo meet Mile High expectations?

With Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets hope to prove a point or two about their offensive skills.

Updated: October 2, 2003, 12:27 PM ET
By Chad Ford | ESPN.com

Editor's note: For the second straight year, ESPN.com will visit all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with our report on the Denver Nuggets.

Carmelo Anthony
Low double digits may be a more realistic scoring average for Carmelo Anthony, left.
DENVER -- No one in this city is asking whether Carmelo Anthony is ready for his rookie season.

Instead, everyone from fans, the media and Nuggets brass have a different question for Melo. How quickly will he take the perpetually rebuilding Nuggets to the summits of the NBA playoff race?

That's a lot to ask of a 19-year-old kid with just one year of college under his belt. But when your name is Carmelo and you've already led your college team to an NCAA championship, the expectations are mile high.

Rookie of the Year? Twenty points a night? Savior of the Nuggets? Anthony is welcoming the expectations. In fact, at times, he invites them.

After four hours of practice, an exhausted Anthony wiped the sweat off his brow, flashed his trademark smile and made some bold predictions on the first day of training camp.

Rookie of the Year? "I think so," Anthony says matter of factly.

Twenty points a game his rookie season? "I believe I'm capable of that," he says with a grin.

Savior? "I think I can be a leader on this team," he says. "I'm going to fit in, but I'm not afraid to lead."

His assessment of his first day of training camp? "I think I'm pretty damn good."

He's not smiling this time.

Those comments have a few of Anthony's teammates rolling their eyes, but Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe thinks his rookie's confidence is a good thing.

"If he didn't believe that, I wouldn't have drafted him," Vandeweghe said. "You better be confident. I know a thing or two about having a scorer's mentality. You've got to believe that on any given possession you can put the ball in the basket."

Anthony struggled to do that on his first day of camp. His shot was a little flat and his conditioning wasn't up to speed. He consistently settled for 3-pointers and rarely put the ball on the floor. He appeared just a half step slower than most of his teammates. All pretty standard stuff for any rookie's first day, really.

By the second day, however, he dominated in a 10-minute scrimmage, shooting 4-for-5 from the field -- including a couple of 3-pointers -- and grabbing a couple of steals.

Both Vandeweghe and coach Jeff Bzdelik praised Anthony's work ethic, noting that he put in some serious time in the gym this summer. Still, they have much more modest expectations for their rookie.

"The first thing I did with Carmelo was sit him down and go over the rookie seasons of stars like Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett," Vandeweghe said. "All of those guys are all-world players now, but their rookie seasons were forgettable. I wanted Carmelo to get a clear message that this rookie season won't define who he is as player."

"I've said all along that it's tough for rookies to score in this league," Bzdelik said. "There are so many good defenders and good defensive schemes that take away what you like to do. It's a learning process."

So are those 20-point-a-night expectations unrealistic?

"Yes," Bzdelik said. "We don't expect that. I think Carmelo can realistically expect to average something in the low double digits this season. If he does that, I think his rookie season will be a success."

Anthony's season might be a success if that happens, but if he doesn't score 20 points a night, Bzdelik's second season in Denver might be a flop.

I read somewhere that the Nuggets couldn't score at a swingers convention. We've got to find a way to put the ball in the basket this year.
Jeff Bzdelik

"I read somewhere that the Nuggets couldn't score at a swingers convention," Bzdelik said. "We've got to find a way to put the ball in the basket this year."

It won't be easy. Leading scorer Juwan Howard is gone. Andre Miller, Voshon Lenard and Nene Hilario are the only players on their roster who averaged more than 10 points last season.

Bzdelik is already installing a fast-paced offense that emphasizes running. He's determined to take advantage of his athletes and the thin air in Denver.

But who will pick up the scoring load?

"It will have to be done collectively," Bzdelik said. "In no way are we telling Carmelo he has to lead this team in scoring every night. He's young. It's unrealistic."

Here's a look at the leading candidates:

  • Nene. He has been working on a sweet 15-foot jump shot. He's strong as a bull in the paint. If he can learn how to face the basket a little, he'll be tough to stop. Vandeweghe thinks he may be the key this year.

    "I think he's very similar to Amare Stoudemire," Vandeweghe said. "If Nene had been playing on a team with a couple of All-Stars and had he spoken English, I think he could've had a similar rookie season to Stoudemire. We've surrounded him with more talent this year and I think you'll see the results."

  • Rodney White. He's a candidate to pick up some of the scoring load. He put in a summer of hard work on his jump shot and defense. But he'll be pushed by veterans like Lenard and Jon Barry at shooting guard, potentially limiting his playing time.

  • Marcus Camby. He knows how to score. But given his magnetic attraction to the injured list, it doesn't seem likely his fragile shoulders can carry the team.

  • Miller. He once averaged 16 points a game in Cleveland, but if he has to take over the scoring load, the Nuggets are in trouble. Miller is at his best when he's distributing the ball and getting his teammates involved. When he's looking for his own shaky jump shot, good things normally don't happen.

  • Earl Boykins. The back-up point guard will be another key. He played a huge role for the Warriors in the fourth quarter last year. His ability to push the ball will get the Nuggets running and lead to easy layups by their athletic frontcourt.

  • Nikoloz Tskitishvili. The second-year forward has put on 26 pounds of muscle and may be the most improved player on the squad. But he's just 20 years old. Bzdelik thinks he'll be "serviceable" this year but is probably another year away from making a significant impact.

    Do the math and it's pretty clear that this year's version of the Nuggets will still struggle to score on a consistent basis. But that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of anyone in the franchise.

    "Last year we only won 17 games, but our team competed every night and gave a 100 percent effort," Vandeweghe said. "Effort is the one thing we can control. It was there last season. It will be there again this year."

    The fans are responding. Season-ticket sales are way up. They can't keep their new light blue jerseys on the shelves. There's electricity in the air here in Denver.

    Most of the praise should be directed Vandeweghe's way. It was his choice to totally blow up the team just a few months as GM. That decision is now starting to pay dividends.

    "It was unorthodox," Vandeweghe said. "But I didn't want to do it the same way everyone else does. To me, if you're just following the crowd, you're doing it wrong. I didn't just want us to be mediocre. I wanted us to win a championship."

    The Nuggets are still a long way from that goal. But, for the first time in a long time, Denver fans have one of the most valuable commodities in the NBA -- hope and Carmelo Anthony. Not necessarily in that order.

    Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com's ESPN Insider.

    Chad Ford

    Senior Writer, NBA Insider
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