He's averaging a modest 5.3 points and 3.5 rebounds as a lightly played reserve in his second NBA season, but Jerrod Mustaf has Phoenix Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons calling him "my power forward of the future."
"Cotton tells me that all the time," said Mustaf, a former Maryland star, after helping the Suns hand the Washington Bullets their fifth straight loss, 121-115, Saturday night at the Capital Centre.
"Whenever anyone asks him about me, he'll tell them I'm his future starter. That's real nice, but in this business, you never know what's going to happen."
Mustaf, who opted to turn pro after playing two years for the Terps, has been shocked once. The 6-foot-10 forward, a No. 1 draft choice of the Knicks (17th overall), was on the verge of buying a home in the New York area, confident he was part of the Knicks' rebuilding plans.
But Mustaf got caught up in the Knicks' turmoil last season that ultimately cost coach John MacLeod his job. Mustaf was traded to Phoenix last October along with veteran guard Trent Tucker for high-scoring forward Xavier McDaniel.
Surprisingly, there was little furor in Phoenix over trading McDaniel, who had averaged 20 points over six seasons, for Mustaf, an unproven player.
"Quite frankly, our trade with Seattle last year to get McDaniel didn't work out like we had hoped," said Suns president and general manager Jerry Colangelo. "With McDaniel starting for us, the chemistry was wrong, and I don't believe in beating a thing to death. And, besides, we wanted to get younger."
Both Fitzsimmons and Colangelo view Mustaf as a key ingredient to their emerging youth movement that was in evidence in the second quarter against the Bullets when the Suns made 15 of 20 field-goal attempts to gain a 73-59 halftime lead.
Mustaf, 22, who contributed eight points in the quarter, was joined on the court by forward Dan Majerle, 26, center Andrew Lang, 25, guard Negele Knight, 24, and swingman Cedric Ceballos, 22 -- a second unit good enough to compete against some starting fives.
"I know Jerrod is not getting a lot of playing time now playing behind Tom Chambers and Tim Perry," said Fitzsimmons, "but what I keep reminding myself is that Mustaf would be a senior at Maryland this year."
Fitzsimmons had an excellent chance to evaluate Mustaf's potential two years ago when he coached him in the Aloha Classic for NBA hopefuls. Colangelo scouted the game and came away impressed.
"Mustaf does a lot of instinctive things you can't teach," he said. "We liked his athletic ability. He can catch the ball and shoot in one motion, and he has the ability to shoot outside or post up.
"In college, he played mostly with his back to the basket. Now he's learning to play facing the basket.
"With a young player, you have to show a lot of patience. It usually takes three years for a player to develop in this league. But I'm certain that we got a kid who would have been a lottery pick this June if he had stayed at Maryland."
Despite the praise, Mustaf remains impatient, averaging only 11 minutes of playing time.
"Naturally, I'd much rather be out on the floor playing," he said. "But I'm learning all the time. We're winning a lot of games, so I just have to wait my turn."
NOTES: GM John Nash denied a report that starting F Harvey Grant has been given a contract extension, but talks are continuing. Grant, a No. 1 pick in 1988, has expressed dissatisfaction over his four-year contract, which expires this season. He earned $474,000 last year, ranking him ninth on the team. Grant has been seeking a four-year, $6 million deal. . . . G LaBradford Smith got his first start Saturday when snowbound G David Wingate missed the first quarter. Smith scored eight points, but had his hands full guarding Jeff Hornacek, who had 26 points. . . . The Bullets play Boston tomorrow.