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Badgers' Penney makes himself known at Worlds

by Mike DeCourcy

Sporting News

Sept. 5, 2002

Kirk Penney's World Championship experience began with a 7-of-23 scar on his box-score line and a gleaming smile across his face.

He scored 19 points in spite of his inefficiency from the field, and New Zealand defeated Russia in spite of a 19-point deficit that had to be overcome with a furious second-half effort.

The New Zealanders did not know exactly what they might be capable of accomplishing when they arrived for the start of this tournament, but Penney's experience with the 2000 Wisconsin Badgers served as evidence that their eventual arrival in a Thursday quarterfinal game against Puerto Rico was not impossible. They went 2-1 in pool play, defeating Venezuela in addition to the Russians. In the second round, they earned a 94-88 victory over China that claimed one of the last "elite eight" positions.

Although he is only 21 and one of the few on his team not playing professionally, Penney emerged as the team's top scorer, an indispensable part of its lineup. "He's an unbelievable offensive force," said Pero Cameron, a burly power forward who might be the team's best player.

Listed at 6-5 and 205 pounds, Penney is averaging 17.0 points and shooting 45.3 percent from 3-point range, which is not unexpected for a player who hit 62 threes as a Badgers junior. It is surprising, though, to see the ease and confidence with which he is driving the ball and clearing space with one-dribble moves. His shot is respected enough that opponents dive at nearly every pump-fake, and he shoots or passes with equal confidence after moving into the clear.

"It just completes your game. If someone is going to take away your outside shot, you can counter it," Penney said. "I'm also going into the post a little bit. It all comes into play when you're trying to be as complete as you can."

Penney's play in the Russia victory showed off a rapidly developing arsenal of skills. He drove past Andrei Kirilenko of the Utah Jazz for one impressive lefthanded layup that was a key to the New Zealand comeback. He spun to his left to get loose and launched a 3-pointer that got the margin under 10 points. He drove and dropped a two-handed, behind-neck-pass that center Sean Marks turned into a slam. Frequently matched against Kirilenko, Penney got him disqualified in 14 minutes. Kirilenko scored only two points.

"I really didn't want him in the game," Penney said. "I was trying to get him in foul trouble. And it worked."

Penney accumulated 15 assists in the first six games, primarily by driving deep into the defense and finding open shooters, such as Cameron or Phil Jones. Though he was playing a more varied game and not simply catching and shooting, he turned over the ball just four times in 181 minutes.

"I think driving is something a player always has, because they play that way when they're kids. They don't always just shoot threes," Penney said. "But as you grow up, you're forced to shoot threes because you're so much weaker. And as time goes on, you develop and get stronger and the old habits come back and you can drive to the hoop again.

"You've got to keep developing to improve and be good at all things."

When he began his Wisconsin career with the 1999-2000 team that improbably reached the Final Four, Penney was a thin shooter restricted to firing jumpers from behind the armada of picks in Dick Bennett's "movers and screeners" offense. Now, he has a thick neck, bulging shoulders and rippling biceps. He lifted weights, ate a bit more and filled out naturally. He calls it the "Kiwi rugby body."

That's very much how it appears in New Zealand's uniforms, which are either all black or all white, have the muscle shirt look and are adorned by the words "New Zealand" and "Burger King" across the front. The national team is known at home as the "Tall Blacks," referring to the uniform color scheme.

The success of New Zealand at the World Championships has been important to Penney, who wants to help the sport grow in his country. "It's important kids see these games and aspire to be Tall Blacks and want to play basketball," Penney said. He has teammates who were successful collegians, Mark Dickel of UNLV and Marks of California. Penney is the only one among them who has played in the Final Four, the Olympics and the World Championships. If he goes on to play in the NBA, he could become the most accomplished New Zealander of his era.

That does not seem out of the question given his play in Indianapolis. He led New Zealand with 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting in its loss to the United States. He scored 19 in that game against China.

He might be a bit tired when he returns to Wisconsin, but he will have even greater confidence than when he averaged 15.1 points to lead last year's co-Big Ten champions. He should be more comfortable, also, playing his second year in the more varied system employed by Badgers coach Bo Ryan.

"The system allows you to be complete in that you're posting up, you're shooting threes and you're on the perimeter to make plays," Penney said. "But that's something I'll focus on once we're done here with the World Champs."

The world is noticing Kirk Penney now. The nation should know him even better by March.