PORTLAND, Ore. -- With a mix of youthful abandon and an old-school workmanlike discipline, Zach Randolph has emerged as the future of the Portland Trail Blazers.
Plucked from Michigan State after his freshman year, the 6-foot-9-inch forward is a starter in just his third season with the Blazers. The team made room up front for the 22-year-old after his breakthrough in last season's playoffs and his offseason dedication.
And Randolph responded by averaging double figures in points and rebounds each game, ranking him among the NBA's leaders. He leads the Blazers in scoring, with an average of 23 points a game after the team's first 29 games.
"It is very remarkable," Portland coach Maurice Cheeks said. "I played with one guy like that -- Moses Malone -- but he was an older guy. He was more seasoned.
"Zach is a hard worker. He's hungry. He's a guy we're probably going to be talking about for a long time." "I just try to go out there and play ball, you know?" said the soft-spoken Randolph.Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was impressed after Randolph scored a career-high 34 points in Portland's 97-95 overtime victory over Indiana last month. "I think he's a great young player and getting better all the time," Carlisle said. "He's an offensive force in this league."
Added Memphis coach Hubie Brown: "The young man is really blossoming into a real force."
But Randolph is not immune to the legal problems that have plagued the Trail Blazers in recent years. After the team started promoting Randolph as the savior of its broken franchise, he got arrested.
He was pulled over Dec. 2 for driving erratically and taken into custody after the officer reported smelling marijuana in Randolph's sport utility vehicle, authorities said. Randolph pleaded innocent to charges of driving under the influence of intoxicants.
His brush with the law came as the team struggled to revamp an image tainted by the arrests of other Blazers, infighting, and volatile behavior. During the past 14 months, Rasheed Wallace, Damon Stoudamire, and Qyntel Woods were all cited on marijuana charges.
"I really want the fans to know I'm sorry. At the beginning of the season, I said I wanted to be a part of something they could be proud of," Randolph said. "Now I've done something that has caused fans to be upset again, and I'm disappointed in myself for that."
Late last season, Randolph was involved in a practice skirmish and hit teammate Ruben Patterson in the eye, breaking the socket. He was suspended for two games.
Randolph is determined to overcome his trouble by proving himself on the court.
He first emerged last season when Wallace was serving a seven-game suspension for threatening an official on the loading dock at the Rose Garden after a game. Randolph started, and the Blazers went 5-2.
Then in the Blazers' first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, Randolph averaged 13.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. Despite his efforts, Portland was eliminated after seven games.
Over the summer, Randolph worked out in Atlanta with Woods and several other NBA players, and he played on the Blazers' summer league team in Salt Lake City.
"I have goals and I want to play my best. I worked hard on my game this summer," he said. In October, the Blazers exercised a team option that will keep Randolph on the roster through the 2004-05 season.