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Randolph rises like a big star

No question Zach Randolph is early in his maturation process, certainly as a player and hopefully as a person.

But Randolph, in his third NBA season and first as a starter with the Trail Blazers, has been nothing short of amazing on the court.

A player rarely steps into a starting lineup for the first time and puts up statistics like the 6-9, 255-pound Marion, Ind., native has done.

Consider these numbers: Randolph ranked seventh in the NBA in scoring (22.8 points per game) going into Thursday night's game at Minnesota. He was tied for fourth in rebounding (11.6), third in offensive rebounding (3.8), fourth in double-doubles (19), seventh in average minutes (40.0) and tied for 16th in field-goal percentage (.491). In efficiency ratings Ñ a formula that includes a variety of stats Ñ he was third in the league behind Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.

I'm not sure a player in Blazer history has been so high in so many categories at this stage of a season.

All this despite Randolph's first minislump of the season. In the five games before Monday's loss at Seattle, the 22-year-old power forward had four double-doubles but five straight games in which he shot below 50 percent. In those games, Randolph was 35 of 94 (.372) from the field, coach Maurice Cheeks and teammates suggested that the youngster needs to look to pass out of double-teams more often.

There is some truth to that. Randolph is tied for eighth in the NBA in turnovers per game (3.09), and all those ahead of him are guard types. Opposing defenses are paying more attention to him now. He gets flustered at times against double-team pressure and forces either a bad pass or shot. A lot of times, though, he will go up and get his own bad shot and score on the put-back. He is a quick jumper and a hard worker around the basket; in that regard, he reminds me of Moses Malone.

On this team, especially with Rasheed Wallace having a subpar season, Zach Randolph with the ball in his hands is a very good thing.

If Randolph is skipped over for All-Star Game selection, it will be a crime. Unfortunately, because of the Blazers' mediocre record and the depth of talent at forward in the West, it could happen.

Tension gives way to dŽtente

There have been no blowups between Randolph and Ruben Patterson following their highly publicized incident last season, in which Patterson was sucker-punched by Randolph during a practice altercation. Patterson suffered a broken eye socket, and the Blazers suspended Randolph for two games. After the season, Patterson tried hard to get Portland to trade him, but it didn't happen. Patterson and Randolph will never be pals, but they have coexisted.

'It's cool,' Patterson says of his relationship with Randolph. 'I try not to think about what happened last year. I will never forget about it, but I am the older guy between the two of us. I am not going to sucker-punch him or beat him up. I am going to try to play basketball and help us win.'

This from a player who told the Tribune before the season, 'Deep down in your heart, you just want to kill the guy.'

In this week's Sports Illustrated, Randolph claims his problems with Patterson emerged during Zach's rookie year, when during some locker room horseplay at the Blazer practice facility, Patterson lifted Randolph and slammed him to the floor. According to Randolph, he suffered a bruised tailbone as well as humiliation in front of his teammates.

Given Randolph's account, Patterson shrugs.

'I don't know what pissed him off last year,' he says. 'I'm trying to forget about it and look ahead.'

Patterson is often a productive player, leading Portland in field-goal-percentage (.512) and steals (1.29), and he is one of the team's top defenders. He also is inconsistent and unreliable, which has limited his playing time to 22.4 minutes per game off the bench. He grouses at times but isn't making waves, at least yet.

'I don't complain no more about minutes,' Patterson says. 'I ain't talking about being traded no more. I am happy to be here. I know it's a business. I am a good player. I know I can go anywhere and play. I am not worried about that part. If I stay healthy, my minutes will come.'

Patterson has had his moments with Cheeks but insists there is no rift between player and coach.

'I respect him as a coach, and how he played as a player,' Patterson says. 'We have our ups and downs, but he is all right with me.'

Team lacks a superstar

One of Portland's problems is that it doesn't have a No. 1 player who takes over in tough times. San Antonio has Duncan, Sacramento has Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic, Minnesota has Garnett, and the Lakers have Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal.

Wallace is being paid like a No. 1 guy Ñ $17 million this season, the fourth-highest salary in the league Ñ but he doesn't want the responsibilities that go with being a superstar.

Last week's home loss to Denver was a prime example. Wallace was sensational for the first three quarters, knocking down 12 of 16 shots and scoring 30 points. In the fourth quarter, he was 0 for 4 and had no points Ñ his eighth scoreless final period of the season.

'Every team would love to have a Shaq or Kobe, a superstar player, but it is not going to be that way with us,' Cheeks says. 'We have to work with what we have. There are some guys we have won with already, guys who have been there before, guys who understand about playing this game. We have to get a little bit more committed at the defensive end. It's not about our talent.'

The Feb. 19 trade deadline is less than six weeks away. A deal involving Wallace could reap some talent. It also might bring back a player or players with a long-term contract, or considerable baggage in terms of behavior. Blazer management continues to weigh its options, mindful that if Wallace plays out the season, then is allowed to walk through free agency, the franchise saves $34 million, including luxury-tax payouts.

'We still maintain unless we can make a good trade, we would be better served to do nothing,' Nash says. 'Under the right circumstances, in the event the talent warranted it, we would take back a long-term contract. Thus far, we have had no such offer.'

Notes

Wallace went into the Minnesota game shooting .429 from the field, well below his .503 career percentage. He shot .471 last season. He was shooting .308 from 3-point range after shooting .358 a year ago. Wallace's rebound average also has fallen off, from 7.4 in 2002-03 to 6.8 this season. 'Mr. T' has only six technicals this season, which ties him with Dale Davis for the team lead. É Portland signed 7-5 Serbian Slavko Vranes to a 10-day contract Monday. Vranes, who turns 21 on Jan. 30, was cut recently by New York after spending all season on the Knicks' injured list. 'He is going to be a good player at some point, but he is very raw right now,' Nash says. É On Wednesday, the day teams had to guarantee contracts for the season, Portland waived rookie free agents Matt Carroll and Kaniel Dickens.

While with Miami last season, Portland's Vladimir Stepania ranked third in league in rebounds per minutes played (one every 2.8 minutes), trailing only Detroit's Ben Wallace (2.55) and Indiana's Jeff Foster (2.87). This season, Stepania is averaging one rebound per 3.60 minutes, second on the Blazers behind Randolph (3.44).

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .