BOWIE -- After former Washington Bullets guard Jeff Malone averaged 33.1 points in his past three games for the Utah Jazz, including 43 against the Golden State Warriors Tuesday night, the Jazz front office received an anonymous phone call.
"Pretty good trade you guys made getting Jeff Malone," the caller said. When the man on the other end agreed, he heard a loud cackle. It was Malone, having a little joke.
To date, there has been nothing to laugh about in Washington since the Bullets obtained power forward Pervis Ellison from the Sacramento Kings as part of a three-team June swap -- the first major trade engineered by new Bullets general manager John Nash.
While Malone, with his accurate long-range shooting, has helped the Jazz jump out to a 13-7 start, Ellison, expected to supply both interior offense and defense, remains an 81-inch question mark.
The first player selected in the 1989 National Basketball Association draft, Ellison, who won All-America honors at Louisville, has yet to put together two solid games for the Bullets as a backup at center for defensive specialist Charles Jones.
Hampered by constant foul trouble and sinking confidence, Ellison is averaging 5.4 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. He has averaged a foul every five minutes, aggravating Bullets coaches by repeatedly being called for offensive fouls while setting illegal picks.
On the team's recent five-game Western swing, he played only 72 minutes and totaled 20 points.
With close to a quarter of the season gone, it would be tempting to label the Malone-Ellison swap a disaster for the Bullets. But both Nash and head coach Wes Unseld prefer to reserve judgment.
"It's a slow process," said Unseld, preparing his team for tonight's game against the Houston Rockets at the Capital Centre in Landover. "Pervis has always relied on his athletic ability before, but he is still really learning the game as far as post-up offense and defense.
"The thing you have to understand is that he has the ability to be part of a good future here. But because I'm selfish, I want to win now. I'm looking for immediate help from Pervis, while, at the same time, I realize it will take time for him to mature."
Nash is also preaching patience with the slender forward, whose unspectacular rookie season in Sacramento was limited to 34 games because of assorted foot problems.
"Naturally, we had hoped he would be more productive at this stage," said Nash, who was scouting a college game in Cincinnati last night.
"On the one hand, he hasn't gotten sufficient minutes to prove anything conclusive, but when he has played, he hasn't done enough to show Wes he deserves more playing time."
Nash won't categorize Ellison as being "a project," a phrase generally reserved for late-blooming big men.
"I believe Pervis has high skill levels and has shown in flashes that he can do an awful lot of good things. But the way he has struggled, hisconfidence level has suffered. First, he's got to restore his confidence and go from there."
Nash, the former Philadelphia 76ers general manager, likens the youthful Ellison to former 76er Roy Hinson, now with the New Jersey Nets.
"Hinson started his pro career as a pro center, but was overmatched by bigger men," Nash said. "He proved, however, that he could play both forward positions effectively, and I see Pervis making that same transition."
Nash seemed less perturbed by Ellison's slow start than shooting guard Ledell Eackles' continued problems. Yesterday, Eackles missed practice and will be fined an estimated $1,000.
"I didn't even wait to hear his excuse," said a perturbed Unseld, who called Eackles' home in Maryland.
The third-year guard from New Orleans, groomed to replace Malone in the backcourt, sat out all of training camp in a contract dispute. He agreed to terms 10 days after the start of the season and reported for work badly out of shape.
Unseld has tried to push Eackles into playing shape, but his ineffective play as a reserve led to his being benched against both Golden State and the Denver Nuggets.
He seemingly has lost his key reserve role to rookie A.J. English, who has scored in double figures four of the last five games, including a career-high 30-point effort Tuesday night at Denver.
NOTES: The timetable for the return of all-purpose forward John Williams seems to have been pushed back until January. Unseld said he has not received word from team doctors that Williams, recovering from knee surgery performed a year ago and fighting a weight problem, is ready to begin practicing with the team.
) Opponent: Houston Rockets
Site: Capital Centre, Landover, 8 p.m.
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
Outlook: This is the first home game for the Bullets in nearly two weeks after a five-game Western swing during which their only victory came against Golden State. Bernard King has been the one constant, ranking third in the league with 29.5 ppg. Point guard Darrell Walker raised his rebounding average to 8.9 by grabbing 31 in the past two games. For Houston, C Akeem Olajuwon averages 25.6 points, leads the league in rebounding (14.0) and is second in blocked shots (3.6). Playmaker Kenny Smith, acquired from Sacramento, is averaging 17.6 points and 8.3 assists. Power forward Otis Thorpe has contributed 15.2 points and 9.7 rebounds.