NEW YORK -- Pat Riley figures to conduct hundreds of experiments in his first year as the New York Knicks coach, but Jerrod Mustaf has earned a special distinction. He is Experiment 1.
Riley saw the 6-foot-10 Mustaf display enough speed and agility as a rookie last season to consider making him primarily a small forward this year in his up-tempo offense. Mustaf, who is up to 238 pounds after lifting weights for the last two months in Maryland, will use the Knicks' rookie camp this month to refine his perimeter skills and condition himself for the quicker pace.
"I see him as a big forward that I'd like to see become a small forward," Riley said. "At 6-10, I think he has the skills, the quickness and lateral ability to put him against smaller, quicker players instead of having him play against bigger, stronger players.
"I'd like to make that experiment, but always think of him as a guy who could player either spot. He's got a lot of work to do, but I think he can do it. He needs a lot of work on balancing and thinking a little more perimeter."
Mustaf, who left Maryland after his sophomore season, is still just 21. He played unevenly last year, averaging 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game. But he shifted through three spots, backing up Charles Oakley at power forward, starting at small forward when Kiki Vandeweghe was injured and even spotting Patrick Ewing at center.
It was a learning experience for Mustaf, but he also taught the Knicks a little about his toughness when he played with a broken nose in the final playoff game against the Bulls, scored eight points and didn't back down when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen drove to the basket. He was one of the few Knicks to stand his ground in that disaster.
Mustaf ran cross-country at DeMatha High in Washington, D.C., and his track shoes are back on. He is looking forward to Riley's challenge of facing the basket and running the court.
"He mentioned to me about the small forward position and being able to get down the court and run," Mustaf said. "We're going to run a lot. I've just got to get in great shape for that.
"I'm working on shooting and working on guarding smaller, quicker guys. When I get on the break, I'm not going to be going to the hole and posting up because I know I might have to pop out on the wing."
Mustaf said he always has viewed himself as a "combo" forward because of his rebounding and running skills. He also knows that Riley's system makes good use of posting up small forwards.
"That might be one reason why he likes me in the small forward position," Mustaf said. "Then again, I guess he thinks I'm pretty fast, and if he keeps me in the power-forward position, I won't have the chance to get the most out of my potential."
Ernie Grunfeld, the Knicks' player personnel chief, says the exciting thing about Mustaf is that had he not entered the 1990 draft (the Knicks picked him 17th), he would be entering his senior season at Maryland.
"He's still a very young player," Grunfeld said. "He has a good feel for the game and a lot of skills. He can put the ball down on the floor, he's got a good offensive shot, rebounds and runs the floor well. But you can't put pressure on a young player."
Mustaf already is looking ahead to tomorrow night when he can try out his new position against the 76ers rookies and free agents. He was winded by Riley's exhausting two-a-day sessions.
"I just can't wait for the games to start," Mustaf said. "I'm tired of practicing."
And it's only July.