LANDOVER -- His pro basketball debut is still four months away, but rookie guard LaBradford Smith has faced his first frustration.
The first-round selection of the Washington Bullets will not be able to wear No. 23, the uniform number he sported during his Louisville career in tribute to his idol, Michael Jordan. That number belongs to reserve center Charles Jones, the Bullets' least Jordan-like player.
" 'Dr. J' [Julius Erving] and Michael Jordan are my favorite basketball players," said Smith, appearing at his first Bullets news conference yesterday.
"I liked their style and tried to pattern my game after theirs. Every game, I'd hear fans say, 'You're no Jordan.' But I used that as a positive, trying to elevate my game to his level."
Wearing another number with the Bullets may help bring Smith down to earth, so to speak.
"LaBradford sometimes thinks you get points for style, like in diving," said Denny Crum, his coach at Louisville. "But in basketball, you don't get style points. It's execution that counts."
It took some time for Smith to get Crum's message, but he toned down his acrobatic act and finished as Louisville's all-time leader in assists (713) and fifth on the school's all-time scoring list (1,806 points).
But it was the athleticism of the 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard that put him at the top of the Bullets' list after the acquisition of Michael Adams from the Denver Nuggets left them with the 19th choice in the NBA draft.
A brief highlight film shown yesterday indicated that Smith can do a convincing impersonation of "Air Jordan."
Several times in open court, the Texas native double-clutched for dunks or turned lob passes into sensational slams. What must have also pleased Bullets coach Wes Unseld was how Smith also found the open man in fast-break situations, leading to Unseld's conclusion that he can play both backcourt positions.
"I not only see him pushing our veterans in camp, but also making us a better team," said Unseld. "He was our No. 1 guy when it came to figuring who we might get with the 19th pick. We'll see if he can run the team, but I personally feel he'll be more comfortable as a 2 [shooting] guard."
Smith can definitely run and jump. He high-jumped 6 feet, 10 inches at Bay City (Texas) High School where he was enough of a baseball prospect to draw the attention of the Kansas City Royals, who drafted him as a senior.
"I liked baseball, but basketball has always been my first love," said Smith, whose older sister, Annette, served as an example, starring for the University of Texas.
As a high school player, Smith was the object of an intense college recruiting war.
"There would be coaches camped on my doorstep and waiting for me outside school all the time," he recalled. "My phone never stopped ringing."
He narrowed his choices to Syracuse, North Carolina, Louisville, Georgetown and Texas.
"When I visited Louisville, I just felt more comfortable with the coaches and the players," he said.
He started as a freshman, and would make Louisville history as the only four-year player to start every game.
One of his college teammates the first two years was center-forward Pervis Ellison, who joined the Bullets last season after a trade with the Sacramento Kings.
Their basketball reunion is anticipated eagerly by both players.
"LaBradford is a great athlete," said Ellison. "He's very explosive on both ends of the floor, shooting the ball and making steals. But he's definitely a team player."
Smith credits Ellison with easing his way as an freshman starter at Louisville.
"On defense, I knew if my man beat me, Pervis would be back there to protect me with a block," he said. "And on offense, when they doubled Pervis inside, I could get free for a shot."
NOTES: One thing about Smith has already caught Unseld's eye. The rookie sports an earring in his left ear. . . . Smith was accompanied by his agents, Tony Dott and James Bryant, who began preliminary contract talks with GM John Nash. "We're optimistic we can get it done before rookie camp opens [July 15]," said Dott. With the Bullets already over the projected $12.5-million salary cap, Nash will have to cut 1 or 2 holdovers to satisfy Smith's demands. . . . Veterans Tom Hammonds, Greg Foster and A.J. English will participate in the 3-day rookie/free-agent camp.