Trimmed-down, grown-up Kaman comes into his own
Peeking through Chris Kaman's locker, pinned behind a crisp jersey, is a picture of a smiling Borat.

Kaman isn't sure how or when the picture of the Sacha Baron Cohen character arrived. He saw the movie, thought it sometimes crude, sometimes funny. The picture hangs, so it must serve some purpose.

And that's Kaman, 7 feet and a slimmed-down 255 pounds of go-with-the-flow persona.

In many ways, Kaman, 25, is still an unassuming big kid. He shoots skeet at his Michigan home, says he doesn't care for rap music but gets caught reciting a Jay-Z lyric, and responds to a question of why he has no tattoos by asking, "Have you met my parents?"

But those close to him see a stark difference in his play and maturity, a sign that the Clippers center is coming of age after a season he is quick to label frustrating -- and one in which Kaman received much of the blame when his team missed the playoffs.

Now Kaman is averaging 18.3 points and 14.0 rebounds, both nearly doubling last season's numbers. He is third in the league in rebounding behind the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard and the Denver Nuggets' Marcus Camby, and is fourth in blocked shots at 2.71.

"It's the best he's ever played, I think," Clippers Coach Mike Dunleavy said. "He's had great stretches at times before. He's just playing like he knows: 'Hey, this is the way it's supposed to be. This is what I do.' "

The league is taking notice.

"He's a dominant center so far," said Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown. "He's shown why he was a first-round pick a couple years ago. He's a big guy that's tough and very skilled. He understands his role. He doesn't try to force the issue or do too much.

"He knows what he can and can't do and he does it very well . . . [and] having that veteran cast around him really keeps his head level and keeps him headed in the right direction on both ends of the floor."

Kaman collected 26 points and 18 rebounds against the Golden State Warriors in the season opener and hasn't slowed much since, the one bright spot on a 9-15 team besieged by injuries.

"I'd rather just win," Kaman said. "If you get a loss and you score 50 points, it doesn't mean anything."

Kaman's turnaround could be from his hours in the gym over the summer, from the 20 pounds he lost and his newfound quickness. Or the extended range on his jumper.

"There's a lot of things," Kaman said. "The biggest thing is I'm getting a lot more touches. A lot more minutes, and coach is kind of letting me do my thing. Each year, I gain knowledge and I am smarter. I get in better positions. I make better plays."

Kaman, along with the longtime friends who moved west with him, drove back to Michigan immediately after last season. "I know he was disappointed last year, so I think he really wanted to come back and have a better season," said his mother, Pamela Kaman.

After staying a couple of weeks, Kaman and his friends returned to California, where Kaman's renewal had a suspicious beginning. "Who in the NBA do you know takes their 65-foot boat and rides in the boat with his guys and drives all the way to Mexico for the summer and stays down there in a boat slip for a month and a half?" Kaman asked.

Kaman, his friends and Clippers assistant coach Kim Hughes, a former NBA post player, ventured south to fish for marlin. It was a chance for Hughes, who has worked with Kaman for four years, to get him in a comfort zone. They stayed awake deep into the night, having several heart-to-hearts revolving around what Kaman needed to do this season.

"It gave me a chance to go one on one with him in a very conducive environment for him, where he is much more willing to learn," Hughes said. "He truly wants to be as good a player as he can be, and as far as I'm concerned, if a guy has that mentality, he has no limitations."

Those late-night talks, though, didn't lead to an immediate transformation.