Carmelo Anthony is finding it easier to carry the Denver Nuggets now that he's not burdened with so much personal baggage.
Anthony's name kept showing up in the headlines for all the wrong reasons last season: A bar fight in New York City; a bag of marijuana found in his backpack at the airport; showing up on a bootleg DVD in Baltimore in which a man threatened to kill drug snitches.
Now he's making all his noise on the court.
He's averaging a career-best 25.5 points and has led the Nuggets to the top of the Northwest Division despite a rash of injuries to the frontcourt. At 21, he's turned into the star everybody predicted he'd become when he left college after leading Syracuse to the national championship as a freshman in 2003.
Earlier this week, Cleveland limited him to 17 points, his lowest output in a full game since Nov. 23, but he still hit the clutch shot in the closing seconds and played admirable defense on LeBron James in Denver's 90-89 win.
"The way he's playing right now, he should be a lock" for the All-Star Game, marveled James. "He's playing like an All-Star. He's playing like a superstar."
And acting like one, too.
After all his off-court troubles last year, Anthony said he dedicated himself last summer to becoming a better person and a better player. He showed up at camp in top shape and quickly proved that coach George Karl's two-year blueprint for him to reach NBA stardom was twice as long as needed. He also decided to spend his off-time doing more community and charity work.
"This season I came in with a clean slate," Anthony said. "I didn't have any off-court issues to worry about. I was able to get focused on basketball. Everybody in my circle, I told them I was on a mission this year."
To clean up his act on and off the court.
"If I still had stuff on my mind, off-the-court issues, I probably wouldn't be able to come out onto the court and do what I'm doing now," Anthony said.
The more mature 'Melo has hit two game-winning shots this month, giving him five for his career -- Michael Jordan had 11 in 15 NBA seasons -- and he sent another game into overtime with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"It's been awesome. He's been pretty much carrying the whole organization on his back," injured center Marcus Camby said. "He's doing a terrific job. He's been coming early, staying late, working on his game and that goes to show you how much he's maturing."
What's most impressive about his improvement is that it hasn't come at the expense of others.
"That's what I love about what 'Melo's doing. He's doing it with the respect of our team and within the team framework, with efficiency," Karl said. "I really think his development has been spectacular because it's lifted the team, it hasn't drained the team. I think sometimes individuals can suck the energy out of a team."
Karl is trying to convince Anthony that if he can double his assists average to five per game his teammates will get the ball to him more often.
But a ball hog or stats freak Anthony is not. He's not just putting up the points, he's coming through in the clutch.
"My confidence level is out of this world right now," Anthony said. "I feel every shot I put up there is going in."
It was two games the Nuggets actually lost that Anthony points to as the most important in his growth so far. One came Nov. 30, when he sat out a loss to New Orleans with a sprained left ankle and realized how badly his team needed him. He hasn't missed a game since, despite a dislocated finger, bruised ribs and a sore back. Then there was a two-point loss to Philadelphia on Dec. 27 in which he was double-teamed on the final inbounds and dished to guard Earl Watson, who missed the 3-pointer.