During his collegiate days in New Orleans, Ledell Eackles was aptly nicknamed "The Big Easy" for the way he consistently produced big numbers in the box score with what seemed to be a minimum of effort.
Today, the fourth-year NBA swingman might be labeled the big tease for the way he has Washington Bullets management puzzling over his potential in the NBA.
Since he inherited the starting small forward job in mid-February after the trade of Tom Hammonds to the Charlotte Hornets, Eackles has averaged more than 20 points.
Typical of his recent offensive surge was his 34-point performance against Charlotte on Saturday night that helped end the Bullets' seven-game losing streak, and all but eliminated the Hornets from the playoffs.
Coach Wes Unseld, who has anguished over Eackles' inconsistent play, particularly his indifferent defensive efforts the past three years, has reason to wonder whether the burly 6-foot-5 veteran, who becomes a restricted free agent at season's end, is simply staging a strong salary drive.
Last week, Eackles said all the right things: He said he had a renewed commitment to basketball, owed a debt to his teammates, and said he would report in shape at his next training camp, wherever it might be.
The Bullets, who were eliminated from the playoffs last weekend, must decide whether it is worth re-signing Eackles, who is due to earn a minimum of $910,000 next season, or look for help elsewhere.
Until recently, rival teams had shown little interest in Eackles, but his ability to create shots and draw fouls is valued highly. "Scoring has never been a problem for Ledell," said Unseld. "But now he is finally starting to do the other things we've always asked of him -- playing defense, setting picks and helping his teammates to score."
Said Eackles: "I'm trying to play a complete game now. I know if I'm not trying on defense, Wes isn't going to leave me out there. But I'm not worried about what will happen to me next season. If I can continue to play this way, next year will take care of itself."
Eackles also has convinced his teammates that he finally might be taking the game seriously.
"I think Ledell finally realizes he can really do something with his career," said veteran Charles Jones, who grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds and blocked seven shots against the Hornets. "The effort is there now every night. He's playing a lot of forwards much bigger than him, and he's rebounding and helping out. That's all we can ask."