The Jazz's breakthrough season was ending on a Saturday afternoon last May, just when things started looking up for the Los Angeles Clippers. During halftime of the nationally-televised Game 7 of the Jazz-Lakers playoff series, the Clippers won the annual NBA draft lottery and the right to select Kansas forward Danny Manning.
Five games into his pro career, Manning makes his first Salt Palace appearance tonight as the Jazz's two-week homestand continues.Rik Smits, the No. 2 choice in the draft, played well last Tuesday with 20 points and nine rebounds in Indiana's loss to the Jazz. Tonight, the Jazz will meet the Nos. 1 and 3 picks, Manning and forward Charles Smith, who arrived on draft day via a three-way trade with Philadelphia and Seattle.
Manning missed the Clippers' first four regular-season games during a contract holdout but joined them in time for the Nov. 12 home opener, an exciting overtime win over Phoenix. "If the guy knows how to play, he can come in and play right away," Barry Hecker, the Clippers' director of scouting, said after that game. "Defensively, he just did everything instinctively."
Coming off the bench behind Smith and improving second-year forward Ken Norman, Manning is averaging 15.2 points, with two 20-point games. "I think where he'll be good is the effect he has on the other players," his college coach, Larry Brown, said the day Manning agreed to his five-year contract.
"Danny makes us a better team because there's one more guy to throw at you," noted Hecker. "I think Charles Smith was a very good player to start with - and (Manning) makes him better, and he makes Manning better."
Rebuilding from seasons of 12 and 17 victories, the Clippers have six first-round choices of the last two drafts on the roster, although forward Joe Wolf is injured. With a 4-5 start, the Clippers are showing signs of respectability already. "There's no question in my mind that in a reasonable amount of time, we're going to be one of the best teams in the league," Coach Gene Shue said during training camp.
After tonight, Jazz followers should have at least a better idea just how long "reasonable" might be.