EAST RUTHERFORD,N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Washington Bullets began looking more like contenders than pretenders yesterday after projected starting guard Ledell Eackles ended his holdout by signing a two-year deal for an estimated $1.5 million.
Two weeks ago, the Bullets got another boost when power forward John Williams, regarded as the team's best player, ended a summer-long sit-down.
Eackles, 23, who passed a physical examination by team doctor Steven Haas yesterday, was placed on a five-day suspension list.
He will use the time in an effort to trim excess weight from his robust 6 -foot-5 frame after missing all of training camp. Eackles immediately began two-a-day workouts with assistant coach Jeff Bzedelik and will rejoin the team in practice Thursday morning.
"I'm not worried about how much money I got. I'm just glad it's over and I can get back to playing basketball," said Eackles, speaking from his home in Maryland.
"It hurt me watching and hearing the team lose close games. The guys were really trying hard, but I knew it would be different if John [Williams] and I had been playing."
Like Williams, Eackles has had a history of weight problems. He would not reveal his official weight (he played last year at 220), but said: "I don't think I'm that much out of shape. Today [Monday] I ran a mile and a half, and did a lot of sprints. I'm just working on my endurance."
Asked if he felt pressured by having to replace team scoring leader Jeff Malone, who was traded to Utah in June, the New Orleans product said: "I'm not looking to impress anyone. I know I can score. I'm just going out there and playing hard every night."
The Bullets, struggling offensively, would like to get Eackles in uniform as soon as possible."
"With Eackles, it gives us another offensive option besides Bernard King," said general manager John Nash, who worked out the two-year contract with Eackles' agent, Ed Sapir of New Orleans, this past weekend. The deal was finalized yesterday afternoon when Eackles added his signature. Nash and Sapir agreed not to reveal the financial terms.
"We've been struggling to score over 100 points, and Bernard has been forced to carry too much of the burden," Nash said. "When Ledell is ready, he should ease the pressure. [Coach] Wes Unseld will decide when to play him."
With Williams, who needs to shed some 30 pounds and strengthen his surgery-scarred right knee, expected to be reactivated by Jan. 1, Unseld has all the pieces he anticipated to be working with this season.
"I've said all along that if we had both Williams and Eackles from the start, we wouldn't be half-bad," said Unseld. "We'd scare the hell out of a lot of teams.
By placing Eackles on the suspended list, it allows Unseld to ponder his required cut to make room for Eackles on the 12-man roster.
The most likely casualty is free-agent guard Larry Robinson, who started the first four games of the season and averaged 8.3 points in 20 minutes. But his playing time diminished while rookie draft pick A.J. English began to live up to expectations.
Free agent Haywoode Workman is the only point guard behind starter Darrell Walker and may be retained out of necessity. Byron Irvin, a second-year shooting guard acquired from Sacramento Oct. 30, has a guaranteed contract, which should save his roster spot.
But Unseld prefers to reserve judgment.
"I'm going to base my decision on who I think deserves to stay and can help us the most," he said. "I'll let the other guys worry about contracts and such.
"I know what Ledell can do. I've had him for two years. I'm getting a feel for English, Robinson and Workman. Irvin is still a secret. But who knows? I could also cut a forward."
Signing Eackles became paramount as the Bullets' offensive shortcomings were revealed in recent losses to New York and Milwaukee. In the fourth quarter, their defenses applied extra pressure against King, averaging 31.5 points on 26 shots through the first four contests.
No one has ever doubted Eackles' scoring potential. It was one of the reasons Nash found it possible to trade Malone to Utah in the three-team swap with Sacramento that brought power forward Pervis Ellison to Washington.
Used in a reserve role, Eackles averaged 13.5 points. However, his average soared to 25.3 when he started six games.
A second-round draft pick in 1988, Eackles earned $250,000 last season. His estimated annual salary of $750,000 will be a substantial raise, but considerably lower than the four-year, $8 million pact Sapir first proposed this summer.
"We needed a job, and we consider this a fair deal," Sapir said. "There is absolutely no hostility between Ledell and the Bullets. The two years are fully guaranteed, and there are built-in incentives that could raise his salary.
"Originally, we tried to work out a four-year deal," Sapir said. "But once we zeroed in on two years two weeks ago, we were able to expedite matters. A one-year contract made no sense because we would have had to go through the same thing again.
"I still believe that Ledell's next contract, when he has established himself as a star, will be his big one."