NEW YORK -- Jerrod Mustaf, who left the troubled Maryland basketball program after his sophomore year, was considered too soft and thin to hold his own among the National Basketball Association's rugged big men.
But after a month of hand-to-hand combat in training camp against strong forward Charles Oakley, the 6-foot-10, 238-pound forward has proved to himself and to New York Knicks management that he has NBA strength and mental toughness.
Oakley tested the No. 1 draft pick with every veteran's trick in the book, but Mustaf kept fighting back.
"The biggest thing is that the kid doesn't back down," said Knicks assistant coach Paul Silas, an outstanding NBA forward in the 1960s. "Mustaf is big enough and athletic enough to handle himself in this league."
Mustaf expected to be challenged by every veteran, and has the bumps and bruises to show for it.
"They grab you, push you, and throw you down," he said. "You get up and don't worry about it. You've got to compete with these guys or you shouldn't be out on the court."
Labeled by most NBA scouts as a finesse player who relies heavily on his outside touch, Mustaf surprisingly is being used almost exclusively in relief of Oakley.
"We always felt he had the potential to play power forward," said Knicks general manager Al Bianchi, who gambled in making Mustaf a first-round selection. "Eventually, we feel he'll be 6-foot-11 and a solid 255. The big thing that has impressed me about Jerrod is that he is mature beyond his age . He's very level-headed."
Knicks coach Stu Jackson said that Mustaf's ball-handling skills and delicate shooting touch fit into his offensive scheme.
"Our power-forward spot is a skilled position," Jackson said. "The player filling it is supposed to be capable of putting the ball on the floor and passing from the top of the key. Mustaf has shown that he can do that rather well. I've followed Jerrod since he was a ninth grader at DeMatha High. We might have got real lucky in the draft with this kid."
Mustaf, who has averaged 10 minutes a game, gives credit for his rapid development to Oakley and Knicks superstar Patrick Ewing.
"I'm real fortunate in having the opportunity to learn from two veterans like this," Mustaf said. "Watching them in practice and in game situations is almost as valuable as playing.
"I'm getting quality time, just trying to play good defense and help out on the inside. But I'm still looking for my game to come together."