Nazr Mohammed has never given himself a clever nickname or made a rap CD, and he would not know how to start a superstar feud. Shaquille O'Neal he is not.
But Mohammed has, unexpectedly, become perhaps the best Eastern Conference center not residing in south Florida. Or the most consistently productive one, anyway.
Mohammed, the Knicks' starting center, is averaging career highs of 12.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. He is also shooting 53.2 percent from the field. His hustle and grit have helped the Knicks (16-13) to first place in the Atlantic Division. And his steady production has put him squarely in the conversation about who should back up O'Neal in the All-Star Game on Feb. 20 in Denver.
"I think he's in that discussion," Isiah Thomas, the Knicks' president, said. "I know the thing that the coaches value the most is his work ethic, the way he approaches the game every night and the way he does the dirty work inside the paint. He's not flashy; he's effective. He's just a worker."
O'Neal, of the Miami Heat, is a lock to start in the All-Star Game; he leads the voting for Eastern Conference players. Detroit's Ben Wallace will be a favorite when the coaches select reserves in late January, and Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas will receive heavy consideration.
Mohammed cannot match the popularity or the flair (or hair) of Wallace, but he may be the best qualified to be O'Neal's backup in Denver. Mohammed has recorded 11 double-doubles, as many as Houston's Yao Ming; among centers, they are second only to O'Neal, who has 17.
Entering Thursday's games, Mohammed was third among centers in rebounding average, behind Wallace (12.6) and O'Neal (10.8), and second in offensive rebounds (3.8), also behind Wallace (4.6). Wallace also had the edge on Mohammed in blocked shots, with 2.89 a game to 1.17. But Mohammed was ahead of Wallace in scoring average (12.5 to 9.9), field-goal percentage (53.2 to 44.3) and free-throw percentage (74.3 to 47.2).
Mohammed has scored in double digits in 18 of 29 games this season; he has not missed a game. Wallace has scored in double figures in 9 of 19 games; he served a six-game suspension for his role in the Nov. 19 brawl at the end of the Pacers-Pistons game. Mohammed, ever unassuming, chuckled softly when the possibility of being an All-Star was mentioned.
"Hey, shoot, keep passing it on, keep the buzz," he said. "I can't lie. I would be ecstatic. Just my name being mentioned is a great achievement for me. I wouldn't know how to react. I wouldn't have thought I'd have an opportunity like that."
Even Knicks officials have been pleasantly surprised by how far Mohammed has come since they acquired him in February in a three-team deal. Although Tim Thomas was viewed as the key pickup, "I wouldn't have made the deal without Mohammed," Isiah Thomas said.
Mohammed's name was not even placed on this year's ballot for the All-Star Game. The omission was understandable. Mohammed, 27, was not considered a full-time starter, and only once has he averaged more than nine points or seven rebounds in a season. As the preseason came to a close, he was still battling Vin Baker for the starting role. Both struggled in October, but Mohammed struggled less and won the job.
In the first two weeks of the regular season, Mohammed often looked passive and sometimes lethargic. It was not until mid-November when Mohammed, a devout Muslim, revealed he had been fasting for Ramadan and had lost seven or eight pounds. His game took off after that. In the nine games from Nov. 13 to 30, he averaged 15.8 points and 11.2 rebounds. Those are All-Star numbers.