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Golden State Warriors coach Don Nelson beat his protege, Mavericks coach Avery Johnson, in the first game of the teams' playoff series.
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LAIE, Hawaii -- Where the perception started, Warriors coach Don Nelson can't say. Maybe it was because future star Sidney Moncrief rode the bench in his first season as a Milwaukee Buck decades ago. Maybe it stemmed from some other hotshot who didn't meet expectations.

Whatever the origins, Nelson knows this much: He disagrees thoroughly with the widely held notion that his teams are the places were first-round picks go to die -- that rookies are destined to fail, at least in the short term, under his tutelage.

"That's so totally false," Nelson said. "I started (Tim) Hardaway here, (Chris) Webber started as a rookie. ... I play rookies who can play. If they can play and help me, I'm going to play them. If they can't, I'm not going to play them."

The Warriors' latest crop of rookies has been spending the last week trying to prove it belongs in the former category rather than the latter. The 2007 class gets its next chance this evening, when the Warriors open their exhibition schedule against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu.

For Marco Belinelli, Stephane Lasme, Kosta Perovic, Brandan Wright and free-agent invitee Carlos Powell, tonight marks the first time they'll put on an NBA uniform.

"It's going to be a good experience for us young guys," Wright said Monday. "I'm excited about everything that's going to happen tomorrow."

Said Belinelli: "For me, it's a dream. I want only to play and help the team.


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Wanting playing time and earning it as a rookie are completely different things, of course. At times during the Warriors' eight-day stay on the North Shore, Nelson has called out the rookies en masse for struggling to keep pace.

Monday, however, the coach said Belinelli should receive heavy playing time in tonight's debut and then praised Wright, who showed off an impressive, high-arcing jump shot in practice.

"He's still got a long way to go, but Brandan Wright has improved every day," Nelson said. "He really has. He's not ready for prime time, but his growth should be rapid."

Belinelli is still the rookie most likely to make an impact, thanks to five years spent playing in Italy's top league.

"Belinelli started out just shooting shots, but I asked him to start creating, and he's really a much better player," Nelson said. "He's making shots, creating for other people and moving the ball. He really fits in well."

Said forward Al Harrington: "He's got a great feel for the game. You can tell he's played professionally for a lot of years. He just knows where to be."

While the rookies are searching for any chance to impress, Nelson said it's all about practice for them.

"Games, they don't mean that much," Nelson said. "I can tell which players can help me this year (from practices)."

Notes: The starting five for tonight's game come as no surprise -- Baron Davis, Kelenna Azubuike, Stephen Jackson, Harrington and Andris Biedrins. ... The first of 13 episodes of "Warriors RoundTable Live" will air on FSNBA, starting at 9:30 p.m. The 30-minute show, hosted by Bob Fitzgerald and Jim Barnett, will feature Mitch Richmond and team president Robert Rowell as guests. The broadcast of tonight's game follows at 10. ... Forward Austin Croshere (back spasms) was held out of practice, although it was a precautionary move; he was taped up and ready to go before being told to sit. He's officially considered "day-to-day" but thinks he'll be available tonight. Forward Matt Barnes (bruised left foot) practiced again (he also went Saturday night), saying the swelling in his foot remains to some extent but that the pain is gone. Guard Monta Ellis (sprained neck) did not suit up and is considered doubtful.

Contact Geoff Lepper at glepper@bayareanewsgroup.com.