Rookie forward Larry Stewart from Coppin State, surrounded by the media at the Capital Centre on Monday night after his 23-point, 11-rebound performance had led the Washington Bullets' 94-84 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, tried to put things in perspective.
Asked if he was surprised as a free agent from a relatively obscure program to find himself enjoying immediate success in the NBA, Stewart said: "I expected to play, and play well. But, honestly, I didn't expect to start so soon. I'm still shocked about it. Every day I wake up and thank God."
The Bullets are thankful, too. Stewart is a diamond in the rough who greatly has relieved the mounting injury count that cost the team the services of forwards Bernard King, Mark Alarie and Tom Hammonds.
"Larry Stewart is no rookie," said Bullets playmaker Michael Adams. "The way he has performed lately, he's already gone way beyond that stage. Now we've got to start hyping him for the all-rookie team."
Added forward Harvey Grant: "Realistically, you don't expect a rookie to keep playing the way Larry Stewart has the past few weeks. You'd think he'd hit a wall somewhere in the schedule.
"But he's a special kind of player and individual. If we need a rebound or a big basket, he's usually the one who gets it. He has no fear. He's from the Philadelphia streets, and I guess that's where he gets that mental toughness."
Filling in at both small and power forward, Stewart has been instrumental in the Bullets' recent turnaround that has produced five victories in the last six games, lifting the team back into playoff contention.
The 6-foot-8 forward, whose agility and ability to grab offensive rebounds is mindful of former Bullets forward Johnny Green, has averaged 19 points and 7 rebounds in the past six games, raising his season marks to 13.2 points and 7 rebounds.
Among rookies, only Charlotte Hornets forward Larry Johnson and Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo, who were the first and fourth selections, respectively, in the NBA lottery, have better statistics than Stewart, who was overlooked in the drafting of 54 college players.
Lottery picks, with their lofty reputations and multimillion-dollar contracts, are expected to make an immediate impact, even though only a handful live up to the advance publicity.
Free agents seldom make it in the NBA. If they do, they usually spend their freshman year mostly the bench, observing and waiting for a chance to play. Coaches are wary of testing them in critical situations, afraid the player will embarrass both himself and the team.
But Stewart, who was twice voted Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year, has proved a model of consistency since first catching Unseld's eye in the June minicamp for rookies and free agents.
He also led the team in scoring and rebounding, but still, no one could have expected him to continue registering double-digit statistics once the games began to count.
"He's proven without a doubt that he can play in this league," said Unseld. "The most impressive thing is that he's not intimidated by anyone. You saw that the way he kept challenging [Spurs All-NBA center] David Robinson, even after he had three of his shots blocked.
"You can't judge Stewart strictly by his points and rebounds. He does a lot of things to help you defensively and in setting picks that you can't find in the box score. He just handles himself like an old pro."
Even NBA rivals have been free in their praise of the soft-spoken Bullets rookie. After he was burned for 19 points and seven rebounds by Stewart on Dec. 6, the Detroit Pistons' Dennis Rodman, rated the league's top defensive player, said, "If he can score off me, he can score off anybody."
Robinson was duly impressed by Stewart's tenaciousness in attacking the glass.
"I give him a lot of credit. He just keeps coming at you," said the former Navy All-American. "He's what I call a utility player. He takes it strong to the hole, gets a lot offensive rebounds and keeps on plugging. When you play that way, good things are bound to happen."
After impressive showings in the Los Angeles Summer League and the pre-draft tryouts in Chicago, Stewart had a chance to sign with the Dallas Mavericks or Washington.
"He chose the Bullets because he liked Unseld's tough-minded approach and the team's motion offense," said Stewart's Philadelphia-based agent, Glenn Schwartzman.