CLEVELAND Kneeling at the scorer's table waiting to get into a game last week, Cavaliers point guard Jeff McInnis looked up just as Carlos Boozer streaked by.
With fundamental precision, Boozer caught a bounce pass near the foul line, dribbled once in the lane, then finished the fastbreak with a ferocious, backboard-shivering dunk.
While nearly 20,000 fans inside Gund Arena yelled ''Booozzzz'', McInnis, a recent arrival via a trade last month from Portland, offered a brief assessment of his new teammate.
''Man, how 'bout Booze?'' McInnis said, shaking his head. ''I had no idea the guy was THIS good.''
Slowly, word is spreading. Two years after slipping into the second round (No. 35 overall) of the NBA draft, and playing in the shadow of rookie star LeBron James, Boozer has become one of the league's young stars.
''He's one of the best forwards in the Eastern Conference not just one of the best young forwards,'' Miami coach Stan Van Gundy said. ''He is becoming a force.''
A 6-foot-9, 260-pound blend of ferocity and finesse from Duke, Boozer has the seasoned game of a 10-year veteran not a second-year pro.
With the tenacity of an NFL linebacker, Boozer relentlessly battles taller opponents under the basket. Using his wide shoulders and some better-than-average hops, Boozer won't stop until he's cradling the ball in his massive hands.
Following a 25-point, 16-rebound performance Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers, Boozer was ranked fifth in the league in rebounds, averaging 11.1 per game.
In nine games since Jan. 17, Boozer averaged 22.6 points and 14.6 boards while helping the Cavaliers go 6-3 and move into the playoff picture.
''He's got the body,'' said first-year Cavs coach Paul Silas, one of the NBA's great all-time rebounders. ''He's got the timing. He's got everything he needs to be a great rebounder. It's happening for him now.''
Boozer, whose laid-back demeanor off the floor counters his imposing presence during games, has improved his shot, too, perfecting a mid-range jumper that's one of the Cavs' most dependable offensive weapons.
In Cleveland's first 49 games, Boozer recorded 21 double-doubles (points-rebounds). Nine times this season, he scored at least 15 points with 15 rebounds only Minnesota's Kevin Garnett and San Antonio's Tim Duncan have more.
And with a contract for this season of just $563,679 small change in a league where the average salary is $4.9 million Boozer may be the NBA's best bargain.
Yet despite his impressive stats and growing stature, Boozer was snubbed in the All-Star voting by Eastern Conference coaches for next week's game in Los Angeles.
''If he keeps playing like he has been lately, there's going to be a lot of All-Star games in his future,'' said Detroit's Ben Wallace, the East's starting center.
After winning an NCAA title as a junior, Boozer, the transplant from Juneau, Alaska, by way of Washington, D.C., skipped his final year at Duke to turn pro.
He worked out for more than a dozen teams before the 2002 draft, and had reason to believe he would go to Utah at No. 19. But the Jazz passed on him, and so did every other team in the first round.
Cleveland was so sure he would go earlier that it didn't even invite him in for a personal workout.
Boozer still wrestles with the reasons for his slide.
''There were a lot of things, I guess,'' he said diplomatically. ''I'm only 6-9, a lot of guys at my position are 6-11, 7-foot. There were also 14 or 15 European players coming in. That was a huge thing. And I think there was the Duke stigma, where people see Duke guys who have been great in college but not in the NBA.
''Even though we're trying to change that.''
Being slighted in the draft motivated the perpetually upbeat Boozer, who now looks at coming to Cleveland as the best thing that could have happened.
Silas' arrival was another sign to Boozer that Cleveland was the place he was meant to be.
''He's an incredible coach,'' Boozer said. ''He's given me secrets on how to rebound, how to get into position. Off the court, he's someone you can talk to about personal things. It's been great.''
During 16 NBA seasons, Silas averaged more rebounds (9.9) than points (9.4) with a workmanlike discipline that he's trying to instill in his young team.
As the Cavaliers left practice court recently, Boozer stood out among his teammates. While most of the players had worked up a healthy sweat, Boozer's wine-colored jersey was soaked to the shade of a full-bodied merlot.
Looking across the room, Silas spoke like a proud father as he talked about one of his best players.
''Yeah,'' the coach said when asked if he sees a lot of himself in Boozer. ''But he can shoot a lot better than I ever could. C-Booz has a chance to be a great player.''
And a perfect complement to James for years to come in Cleveland.
The Cavaliers hold a contract option (worth $695,000) on Boozer for 2004-05, which the club is expected to exercise this summer. If the Cavaliers pick up the option, Boozer would become a restricted free agent after next season.
At that time, it's likely that some of the same teams who let him slip by in the draft would want to sign him to a multiyear, multimillion dollar deal.
Boozer, though, seems content where he's at.
''We've been here almost two years and we're very comfortable,'' he said. ''We've talked about a long-term deal. It's something I want and the Cavs have given me every indication that's what they want, too.''
Negotiations won't begin for some time, but James has already put some pressure on the Cavs to keep Boozer around.
''All I know,'' James said, ''is that I want him as my power forward until I retire.''
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