It's no secret the Washington Bullets are without their two starting guards, but yesterday afternoon, who could tell? A.J. English, the rookie shooting guard from Virginia Union, performed a wonderful impersonation of an NBA point guard, while the Bullets' other shooting guard, Ledell Eackles, looked a lot like the Ledell Eackles everyone has been waiting for.
"A.J. was simply perfect," said Bullets coach Wes Unseld. "I'm not going to judge him on one game . . . but today, he was exceptional."
Exceptional translated to a career-high 31 points and 10 assists, one shy of his career mark.
At the Arena, English's performance and Eackles' 20-point effort also translated into a 108-104 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. The win, before an announced crowd of 10,024 that seemed much smaller, ended a three-game losing streak.
The Cavaliers may not be known for great guards, but if Darnell Valentine is known for anything, it is for being a decent defender. But English got Valentine out of his game early and those 31 points were more than any point guard -- Magic Johnson included -- had managed against the Cavaliers this season.
"He played extremely well," said Cleveland coach Lenny Wilkens. "He hit outside shots. Penetrated well. If he keeps playing like that, he'll be a heck of a player for them."
"A.J. came out with great confidence in this game," said Eackles. "He was determined to open up a lot of things for a lot of players and he did that. He had it on his mind to take it to his opponents, and you saw what happened."
English seemed to be almost everywhere. He played 48 minutes. Set up the offense, found the open man or buried his own shots, when opportunity came. The best one was a crowd-raising reverse one-handed slam.
He penetrated the Cleveland defense with something akin to glee. And he also managed five rebounds, including one of the biggest with 17 seconds left on the defensive end and the Bullets up 105-102.
"I'm not a point guard," emphasized English, who will have to fill in for at least another week with Darrell Walker (knee) and Haywoode Workman (groin pull) still hobbling. "But the last couple games I've had to play point guard. I still don't feel like a point guard. Everyone doesn't have a point guard mentality. I averaged 33 points in college, so you know I don't have a point guard mentality. But I'm having fun doing this."
As for Eackles, the man the Bullets hoped would take up the scoring slack for the traded Jeff Malone, he scored six of the team's last nine points in crunch time, despite a back strain incurred on last week's trip to Texas.
"The difference in my play is that I'm feeling better and I'm getting in the shape I should be," he said. "Because of that, I want the ball more."
It is a strange matchup this two guard teamed with a two guard in the Bullets backcourt. As Eackles explains, it requires one of them to develop a foreign mentality.
"It means being willing to sacrifice the strong part of your game for the team," he said.
But, yesterday, English wasn't sure he had sacrificed anything.
"I just tried to relax," he said. "My teammates created a lot of opportunities for me too."
He seemed to appreciate that fact. After the television cameras had left and the mob of reporters dissipated to other corners of the locker room, English considered what, if anything, he had accomplished.
"Playing the point is about as hard as the transition to the NBA," he said. "And that has been very hard mentally. Everyone knew I could play the game physically, but mentally has been and is a question. Can I play on a consistent basis? Will the long season take its toll on me? Those are things that have to be answered by just playing.
"In this game, I showed I could play a point guard game and the rest of the game would just fall into place," he continued. "I think what I did was surprising to the people at this level. Sure, I averaged 33 points in Division II, but this is the NBA. Yeah, it surprised people. And no one is convinced yet. The questions won't be answered until the season is over."
There was one person in the crowd who was convinced, however. English's mother, Juanita, who made the trip from Wilmington, Del. She said as she watched the first few minutes of the game, she knew this was going to be something special.
"A.J. played some point guard in high school and college," she said. "But he never played like that. He was playing point guard and had four points in the first few minutes. I just knew this was going to be a special night. I could see it coming."
If English keeps up this kind of play, the rest of the league will be in for an eyeful.