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Smart and physical, Knicks' Kenyon Martin has something to prove

Kenyon Martin of the New York Knicks reacts

Kenyon Martin of the New York Knicks reacts after scoring against the Toronto Raptors in the NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden. (March 23, 2013) Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

His tattoos, the hard fouls he delivers and all the facial expressions ranging from disdain and disgust to incredulous, dismissive smiles make people think they know who Kenyon Martin is as a person and a basketball player.

He's tough, aggressive and physical. But it's been pride and heart that have made Martin a great late February pickup by the Knicks. He's on a mission to show he shouldn't have been unemployed for so long.

"I'm just here to prove to people that I ain't never lost it," said Martin, who was out of basketball until the Knicks signed him. "I'm here to prove what I can do. That's everybody every night. Whoever put that uniform on that's opposite us they're going to see what they're missing."

Martin is a confident, strong-willed player who has come back from two microfracture knee surgeries. People close to the 35-year-old veteran power forward say he doesn't get enough credit for his intelligence, and that Martin is a case of a book being judged by its cover.

"I think some people are very fast to do that with him," said 76ers president Rod Thorn, who ran the Nets and drafted Martin first overall in 2000. "He's a great teammate, always has their back, plus he's a heck of a player and one of the smartest players I've been around."

Raptors general manager and former Nets GM Ed Stefanski echoed that.

"What was amazing when I was with him was he knew what every player was supposed to do on both ends of the floor," Stefanski said. "His basketball IQ is off the charts."

It's been 10 years since Martin was the heart and soul of the Jason Kidd-led Nets, who won back-to-back Eastern Conference championships. But Martin still has the skills and smarts to impact a contender.

He was out of basketball until he signed two 10-day contracts with the Knicks, then signed for the remainder of the season. He played a big role in the Knicks' 13-game winning streak. With Tyson Chandler out with a neck injury, Martin started eight games at center and averaged 9.9 points and 6.0 rebounds. He has averaged 7.2 points and 5.3 rebounds in 18 games with the Knicks. Martin has missed the past five games resting a sprained left ankle and was asked Wednesday whether there was any doubt he would be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs against the Celtics.

"What's doubt? Playoff basketball -- you've got to cut this thing off for me not to be ready," he said.

Martin's toughness, defense and leadership will be huge for the Knicks in the playoffs. He can guard perimeter guys as well as post players, including LeBron James of the Heat.

"Kenyon's a defensive stopper," said Nuggets coach George Karl, who had Martin for seven years in Denver. "His pride is contagious. He can be a physical presence."

Martin thought he would return to the Clippers after helping them win their first-round playoff series last year, but they passed.

Martin's age, and his reputation as someone who speaks his mind and doesn't like to practice, could have turned teams off. As he sat home in Los Angeles unsigned, Martin said he felt "mad, frustrated, upset, sad -- all of that." Now he's channeling those emotions and putting them to good use.

"I'm here to prove to people I'm a better person than I am a basketball player," said Martin, who has averaged 12.8 points and seven rebounds in his 13-year career. "That's what people were trying to attack, trying to assassinate my character. That's what it's about for me -- to show people who I am in the locker room and the guys I'm around get along with me, like me. I'm a team guy."

Martin had built-in chemistry with the Knicks. He played with Carmelo Anthony, J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Marcus Camby in Denver and Kidd with the Nets.

Knicks coach Mike Woodson learned quickly that Martin uses everything he has -- his head, heart, arms, hands and mouth -- to help his team win.

"His leadership qualities have been great for us," Woodson said. "He has been good in the locker room and very talkative from a defensive standpoint when we are out on the floor playing. I need that from a coaching standpoint."

Martin's role as an enforcer can't be discounted either. In a recent game, Hawks forward Ivan Johnson committed a hard foul on Smith. Martin got in Johnson's face.

Thorn said this kind of toughness is undervalued now. More often, teams are looking for stretch forwards instead of hard-nosed, hard-playing tough guys.

"He gives the Knicks something they don't have," Thorn said.

Everything Martin has done in a short period of time would seem to assure he's earned himself another NBA contract. He wants it to be with the Knicks, but is focused on the upcoming playoff run.

"I'm worried about now," he said. "I helped a team get out of the first round of the playoffs last year. I thought my chances of going back to that team or another team was great. But I was wrong.

"I don't expect anything. The only thing I can do is go out and play the game the only way I know how and keep my mouth closed on the other side and see how it works out."

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