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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Rodney Carney Gives 76ers Needed Versatility

Carney Gives Sixers Needed Versatility

By Zach Berman, Contributor

The introduction was as ordinary as possible. Rodney Carney answered every question thrown his way, posed for photos with his No. 25 jersey and even asked to keep the name tag placed in front of him.

Carney asked Sixers president Billy King why he couldn’t be issued his college number, 10, and learned it was because the man standing on the other side of Carney, Sixers head coach Maurice Cheeks, wore the number, which now hangs from the Wachovia Center rafters.

Carney was laughing and slapping hands, making jokes and taking deep breathes. The scene was similar to hundreds of press conferences before and presumably hundreds of press conferences after.

But what made the scene unique was Carney’s path to the Sixers, which has been anything but ordinary.

He emerged from a high school career where he didn’t play Amateur Athletic Union basketball to a recruiting process riddled with uncertainty. He had an enigmatic college experience, evolving from a relative unknown prospect his freshman year to a star his senior year that still went through flashes where more was desired than delivered.

Even his NBA draft night was unordinary, hearing his name called as a pick with the Chicago Bulls only to book a flight to Philadelphia for the next morning.

"[Draft night] was real hectic," Carney said. “I didn’t really know. I got onto (the radio) and they said, ‘Chicago,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, great team’ and all that stuff. But when I got downstairs for the other interviews, I had the Chicago hat on and they were like, ‘Take that off, you’re in Philly.’ I said, ‘Philly? Oh man!’ But it’s still a great feeling. Philly’s a great team and a great city, and I’m glad to be here.”

Much of that feeling is a result of what he did to arrive at this point. Carney was always a superb athlete, a genetic marvel who’s the son of two college track stars. He had basketball skills to complement his athleticism, but most college recruiters never had the chance to see either because Carney stuck to high school basketball rather than AAU, the summer circuit frequented by the top players.

AAU basketball has often received a reputation of a one-on-one brand of basketball devoid of defense and team play. Subsequently, Carney’s high school coach, Bobby Wilkerson, didn’t allow his pupil to play AAU.

And the advice has paid off.

“Every one of (my friends) played AAU ball,” Carney said. “But coach (Wilkerson) took me under his wing and told me AAU will give me bad habits. Because I didn’t play AAU, I’m more of a team player.”

The decision didn’t help Carney in the recruiting process, but when a scholarship opened at Memphis, Tigers coach and former Sixers assistant John Calipari offered it to the Indianapolis native.

Carney improved each season, developing from the unheralded freshman to the Conference USA Player of the Year. Carney chalked his AAU-less high school experience as one of the reasons for the ascension and the team player emphasis that resulted as a key to his popularity among teammates.

“If you ask any of them, they’d say he’s a great teammate,” Carney said. “With me, it’s all about the team.”

One of his new teammates, promising swingman Andre Iguodala is the player who’s frequently been compared to Carney since draft night. It begs the question of how two similar players can mesh together.

Neither King nor Cheeks appear concern about a potential conflict, though. In fact, both view the predicament as a positive.

King said the situation is similar to that of the New Jersey Nets, whose combination on the wing, Vince Carter and Richard Jefferson, is among the league’s best. Both also are outstanding athletes who excel in the open court, akin to what the Sixers envision from Iguodala and Carney.

“You put the guys on the court who have talent,” Cheeks said. “You have guys who are a (shooting guard), (small forward) – those positions are interchangeable.”

Last season, the Sixers often encountered matchup problems against teams that decided to play smaller, quicker lineups. King contends the Sixers can’t become caught up in size; instead they must simply play the best players.

“When you went to the playground, you didn’t say I need a point guard, I need a big guy,” King said. “You picked five guys, the five best ones, and generally those are the ones you run with.”
And that’s how the Sixers plan on using Carney. It might not be conventional, but considering his career path, that should come as no surprise. His versatility should give the Sixers an advantageous matchup. If Carney can guard a bigger player, the bigger player won’t be able to guard him.

“If you look at the playoffs, these teams have athletes,” Cheeks said. “There are players getting up and down the court and there are a lot of ways teams can go, a lot of different options.”
Funny Cheeks mentioned playoffs teams, too. For all Carney is – an athlete, a developing defender, a capable shooter – lost in the talent is often the experience. He comes from a winning program and he’s a four-year player.

So when Carney was speaking on the podium in his introductory press conference, he sounded like most incoming rookies. But he wasn’t reading out of a rookie manual. When Carney spoke, he knew what he was talking about.

“I'm hoping to bring excitement to the team,” Carney said. “I just want to help the team progress, get to the playoffs."

Ordinary quote. But certainly not an ordinary player.

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