UTAH JAZZ still have plenty of questions about Russian big man

Friday, July 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) _ Talk about symbolism. After his first practice with the Utah Jazz, newly arrived Russian big man Andrei Kirilenko changed into a black T-shirt with a yellow question mark on front.

Little is known about this international man of mystery.

Now that he's finally here, at least half the guessing is over for curious Jazz fans. Kirilenko was in uniform as summer camp opened last week, with plenty of visual impressions.

As promised, he's tall. The first-round draft pick from two years ago is a solid 2.06-meter (6-foot-9), but he's also quite slender at 92 kilograms (205 pounds).

That frame doesn't concern the 20-year-old Kirilenko, who played for Russia at the Sydney Olympics. Asked if he's ready for the NBA, he smiled and said, ``I will try to play now. I want to play now.''

How about that haircut? Kirilenko's mane has rows of blond spikes that make him look like a basketball-playing version of bad guy Ivan Drago from the boxing movie, ``Rocky IV.''

While searching for the right words to answer questions, his blue eyes darted about, suggesting a boyish charm that couldn't have been forced, considering the pimples on his cheeks.

He promised to work as hard on basketball as he does on his so-so English.

``I'm ready,'' Kirilenko said. ``If the coach says 'yes,' then OK, no problem. It's not hard for me. But you know, my English, it's not excellent.''

Don't worry about Kirilenko forgetting his place on the team. Asked about playing with John Stockton and Karl Malone, he proved he knows who the superstars are, even as he stumbled through the presentation.

``I think John and Karl are one of the best two players in the world,'' Kirilenko said.

Fair enough. And now that we know how Kirilenko looks and sounds, only one question remains.

How's his game?

The answer: Nobody knows yet.

``Well, he's tall, and he's a nice-looking young man,'' coach Jerry Sloan said. ``When you look at his abilities, yeah, he's got certain things, but I haven't seen the basketball part of it.''

Kirilenko spent his first week in Utah doing drills and scrimmages with the team's other youngsters and invited free agents, but Sloan said it takes more than one week of summer camp to evaluate a player.

``It takes about three years to find out who a guy really is, if he can play, how he's going to be affected by 28 different teams in the league and the things they do,'' Sloan said.

Kirilenko was one of Utah's three first-round picks in the 1999 NBA draft, along with shooting guard Quincy Lewis and forward Scott Padgett.

While Lewis and Padgett have logged two years in the NBA, Kirilenko has spent three seasons playing for CSKA Moscow of the North European Basketball League. He joined his first team, Spartak St. Petersburg, at age 15.

Kirilenko has a reputation as a slasher, able to cut through defenders to score. He's also said to be a good shooter, but his beanpole body was a defensive liability against bigger players in Sydney.

So far, however, the Jazz like what they see.

``He hopefully has a lot of athletic ability and I would think that would make him a real prospect,'' Sloan said.

It will be interesting, maybe even humorous, to see how Sloan _ who shows up for practice wearing John Deere baseball caps _ communicates with a young Russian who has little exposure to American culture.

``His English is better than my Russian,'' Sloan admitted.

But Kirilenko sounds sincere when he says he's ready to work, and he's already got the diplomacy part down.

``Very good coach,'' he said when asked about Sloan. ``And you know, very serious.''

Asked if that characteristic was important for a coach, Kirilenko said, ``Yeah, because I think the team must be organized and disciplined.''

Sounds like the Jazz. If he keeps that up, Kirilenko should fit in fine.