BOWIE -- General manager John Nash and coach Wes Unseld have given free-agent forward Larry Stewart a vote of confidence, but the former Coppin State star will not feel secure about clinching a job with the Washington Bullets until he is flying to Indianapolis for the team's season opener against the Pacers on Nov. 1.
"I'm not taking anything for granted," said Stewart, who has averaged 15.2 points and 6.7 rebounds through the first six exhibition games. "No one has told me anything yet about making the team. I can't quit now. I've got to keep going out and playing hard each time."
Not taking things for granted always has been Stewart's way.
He did not try out for his high school team, traditional power Dobbins Tech of Philadelphia, until the 12th grade.
"I was working half a day as a carpenter and didn't have a lot of time for playing ball," he said. "In 1983, coach [Rick] Yankowitz saw me in gym class and talked me into coming out for the team."
Now, he faces a new challenge. But with the Bullets particularly vulnerable at forward after losing scoring leader Bernard King and reserve Mark Alarie to knee surgery, plus the continued absence of John Williams, the odds are definitely in Stewart's favor.
"I've never experienced a training camp that has had so many injuries," said Nash. "With both King and Alarie out, we at least expected to have [forwards] Harvey Grant and Tom Hammonds to remain healthy, but they've both been in and out of the lineup.
"The only real good news to come out of all these troubles is that we found a legitimate player in Larry Stewart," said Nash.
Stewart has proved a perfect fit in Unseld's uptempo game, beating everyone but point guard Michael Adams down the floor to score easy baskets in transition.
He also has crashed the boards, grabbing 40 rebounds -- 19 on the offensive end -- in six games.
"When I assess a player, especially a rookie, I look for something that makes him unique," said Unseld. "With Ledell Eackles three years ago, it was his ability to get his shot off.
"In Stewart's case, he showed that he can run the floor. That set him apart from our other free agents. And he has taken the next step up after impressing us in mini-camp."
Unseld said there is still great room for improvement in Stewart's man-to-man defense, learning to hold his offensive position and gaining confidence in his perimeter shooting.
"You want to see him do all these things, but I honestly don't expect him to learn it all overnight," Unseld said.
At Coppin State, where, in three seasons, he became the school's all-time leader in rebounds (1,052) and second all-time leader in points (1,824), Stewart was employed mainly inside in coach Fang Mitchell's multiple zone defenses.
"I'm really just learning to play man-to-man, and that's been my toughest job," said Stewart.
He prepared for training camp by playing most of the summer in his hometown of Philadelphia against Lionel Simmons and Bo Kimble, both first-round NBA picks last year.
"If I can defend against smaller, quicker guys like Bo and Lionel, I should be able to stop bigger people," Stewart said.
Stewart's main competition for the vacancy at small forward has come from Albert King, a former Maryland star with eight years of NBA experience.
"I can't worry about what Albert is doing," Stewart said. "What's going to happen, will happen, but I've got to give myself the very best chance of making it."
NOTES: Unseld again delayed roster cuts, but Dunbar and Georgetown alum David Wingate, who can play both backcourt positions, and Corey Gaines appear to have the edge over former Towson State star Kurk Lee for the backup role at point guard. Lee, who played for New Jersey last season, is more effective as a shooting guard. . . . Grant returned to action after missing all 6 exhibitions with an ankle sprain. Pervis Ellison (groin pull) and Eackles (sore ribs) sat out the morning drill. . . . Williams' arbitration date over disputed back pay remains unsettled.