LANDOVER -- Someday, even if it kills both of them, Wes Unseld is going to make an NBA center out of Pervis Ellison.
It's the little things about Ellison's game that drive Unseld, his coach, to distraction.
For example, according to Unseld, Ellison has this maddening habit of lowering his shoulders and bringing the ball down in traffic after he gets an offensive rebound. It has the effect of making the 6-foot-9 second-year player from Louisville smaller than he is.
"He's got a nice knack for the ball underneath, but he has a tendency to put the ball on the floor," said Unseld. "When that happens, he ceases to be 6-9 and becomes 6-1 or 6-2."
Unseld, never one to shirk hard work, keeps pushing Ellison, who came to the Bullets last June in a trade involving Jeff Malone. And the project is paying off, if Ellison's play at the end of last night's 104-99 win over the Atlanta Hawks is any indication.
Ellison got a rebound with just over 50 seconds left and the Bullets trailing by one, 99-98. He tipped it out to forward Harvey Grant, who drained a 17-foot jumper to put the Bullets ahead.
On the ensuing possession, after Spud Webb stole a pass, Ellison blocked a John Battle shot in the lane, then put back a Ledell Eackles miss with 13 seconds left to give the Bullets a 102-99 lead.
After Glenn Rivers' three-point attempt sailed over the glass, Ellison's two free throws accounted for the final score. The Bullets, who surrendered a 14-point halftime lead, scored the last 12 points of the game during the last 3:26 to win their sixth straight home game.
Ellison, in a reserve role, had 13 points and 13 rebounds, and did yeoman work on Atlanta reserve center Moses Malone. The former Bullet had just five points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes.
"Wes told me that I had to keep Moses off the boards," said Ellison. "He said that if he doesn't get the rebounds that I had to get them and to stay real close to him."
Ellison, the first player chosen in the 1989 draft by Sacramento, has developed slowly. But the level of his play is picking up, and that improvement is noticeable to him, his teammates and opponents.
"He has the opportunity to be a good player, but he has to get the desire to come to play every night," said Grant, who had 16 points.
"The key guy is Ellison," said Rivers. "He has good moves going to the hoop and he rebounds great. I know Wes has an effect on him. Pervis is aggressive. If he keeps playing like that, he's going to be a great player."
"He's shooting better, he's rebounding better and, for the first time in his career, he's healthy," said Atlanta coach Bob Weiss. "He showed a lot of strength against Moses. Give him credit, he wouldn't back down."
There were other bright spots for the Bullets (18-21). Guard Darrell Walker had his second consecutive triple-double, with 12 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds. And guard Haywoode Workman celebrated his 25th birthday with 14 points, including two three-pointers in the third period to keep the Bullets close. Leading scorers were Bernard King with 25 and Dominique Wilkins with 27 for the Hawks (24-16).
The night, though, belonged to Ellison, who seems on the verge of getting back to the form that earned him the moniker "Never Nervous Pervis" when he helped lead Louisville to the NCAA championship as a freshman.
But Ellison, who gives life to the description soft-spoken, is loathe to admit his improvement. Instead, he wraps his progression within the team's.
"I'm feeling comfortable, but I'm not thinking that I'm where I want to be," said Ellison. "It's more a matter of us playing well as a team."
Baltimore fans can measure Ellison's progress first-thand when the Bullets entertain the Indiana Pacers tomorrow night at the Arena (8 p.m.).