Watching A. J. English's development as an NBA rookie last season was often a painful experience for the Washington Bullets and their supporters.
It was just as frustrating for English, a 6-foot-3 guard from Wilmington, Del., who had led NCAA Division II in scoring (33.4) his senior season at Virginia Union before being picked 37th in the NBA draft.
His transition to the pros proved difficult. English often lost his man on defense, trying unsuccessfully to fight through picks and screens, and struggled to find consistency on offense, averaging 8.8 points and shooting 44 percent.
This season, the English lessons are taking hold. He has become one of coach Wes Unseld's key backcourt reserves, alternating with defensive specialist David Wingate at shooting guard.
After a sluggish start in which he averaged 7.0 points and shot 33 percent, he has found his shooting touch, averaging 13.8 points on 48 percent shooting the past 27 games.
His role in providing offense off the bench was never more evident than in the second half Saturday night, when he scored 12 of his 16 points and twice ignited a sluggish offense in the Bullets' 107-96 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.
With the game tied at 63, English closed the third quarter by hitting three straight jump shots to give Washington the lead for good at 69-64. He also sparked a decisive, 10-0 run in the fourth quarter, contributing two acrobatic layups and adding a behind-the-back pass to a trailing Pervis Ellison for a dunk.
Once afraid to make a mistake, English is brimming with confidence, having replaced inconsistent Ledell Eackles as the Bullets' sixth man.
"Last year," English said, "I'd get tentative after missing a couple of shots and start looking over to the bench, expecting to be replaced. But now I can just go out there and play my game. The coaches tell me not to worry about missing, and just keep looking for my shot."
Despite scoring 2,396 points in college, English is not regarded as a shooter in the mold of former Bullets guard Jeff Malone, now with the Utah Jazz.
"A. J. is a scorer, not a shooter," said assistant coach Bill Blair. "I always liked his game in college, because he's an exceptional athlete with his quickness and jumping ability. Sometimes, he'll still take a bad shot, but he's one of those guys you just have to give a lot of freedom, and he'll find ways to score."
English dedicated himself to improving his game in the off-season. He voluntarily appeared at the Bullets' July mini-camp and participated in the Los Angeles Summer League. In between, he honed his skills in pickup games in Philadelphia with fellow pros Bo Kimble, Lionel Simmons and Bullets teammate Larry Stewart.
English expected to play a greater role with the Bullets this season after the trade of Darrell Walker to the Detroit Pistons and Haywoode Workman's defection to Italy. But Unseld chose to start Wingate, a free-agent acquisition, alongside point guard Michael Adams.
"It's worked out great," English said of his platooning with Wingate. "We're a strong defense-offense duo. I'm happy as long as I'm getting significant minutes. It's like Red Auerbach once said, 'It's not who starts, but who finishes,' and I've been out there at the end of most games."
Said Adams: "A. J. has done a heck of a job for us off the bench. He's providing us with a lot of offense. He's doing all the team could hope for."
NOTE: F Tom Hammonds is eligible to come off the injured list, but management wants to give him at least an additional week to recuperate from his recurring groin injury.