Influx of young talent has Bullets starting season in upbeat mood

NEW LOOK, NEW PROMISE

November 06, 1992|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

Pro basketball pundits and pollsters have been less than kind to the Washington Bullets in forecasts for their 1992-1993 season, which begins in Charlotte, N.C., tonight.

Sport magazine ranked the Bullets 26th of 27 teams, ahead of only the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. Four different publications picked the Bullets to finish seventh and last in the competitive Atlantic Division.

But amid all this doom and gloom, the Bullets, who finished 25-57 last season, appear optimistic.

"The thing you have to remember is that all these negative forecasts were written back in July, when this team had an entirely different look," said general manager John Nash.

"Back then, we were still trying to answer ques- tions about John Williams, Bernard King, Mark Alarie, Ledell Eackles and David Wingate, either whether they'd play for us again or if we'd sign them."

But, now, the uncertainties that Nash and coach Wes Unseld labeled distractions have been resolved.

Williams, the longest and biggest lingering team problem, was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers last month for rookie forward Don MacLean, a first-round draft pick from UCLA.

King, still unable to run after missing last season following knee surgery, was placed on the injured list, with half of his salary used to sign top draft choice Tom Gugliotta, the All-Atlantic Coast Conference forward from North Carolina State.

Alarie, also shelved by knee surgery last year, announced his retirement. And the Bullets decided they could live without either Wingate, their best defensive guard, or Eackles, an explosive, but unreliable swingman.

Four key veterans -- center Pervis Ellison, forward Harvey Grant, point guard Michael Adams and shooting guard Rex Chapman, who played one game for the Bullets last season -- join a supporting cast of young, promising players with obvious offensive skills.

"It's tough on a coaching staff having so many new, young players, like Gugliotta, MacLean, Brent Price, Larry Stewart, LaBradford Smith and Greg Foster," said Nash. "It requires an enormous amount of teaching, patience and discipline.

"And yet, I think our coaches are optimistic. They've found this is a willing group of veterans who want to win, and our rookies act the same way. In the last few years, I felt we had some players who didn't make winning their top priority."

Unseld has tried to temper his enthusiasm, but, on occasion, a smile or nod of approval at the work ethic and performance of his youthful team has been evident.

After a recent practice, Unseld said: "They've done all I've asked of them so far. It's clear we've got a number of young, talented players. Still, there are no guarantees we'll be better in the standings. We won't know what we really have here until we start the season."

No more sleepless nights?

But Unseld, who says he's experienced sleepless nights the past two seasons trying to win with a roster filled with mediocre talent, now has cause for hope.

"I still firmly believe this game is about players, not coaches," he said. "The most frustrating thing for me was trying to figure out ways we could win some games. I'd look down the bench and wonder where I could possibly find help. Our options were so limited. Now, we have much more flexibility."

And shooters, too. Last year, the Bullets finished 18th in offense (102.6 points) and were particularly ineffective in the closing minutes of tight games, when they needed to score out of their half-court offense.

Ellison, voted the NBA's most improved player after averaging 20.0 points and 11.2 rebounds, lacked the bulk to overpower his man inside, and Adams repeatedly found himself double-teamed crunch time, with defenders willing to risk an open shot by Wingate or A.J. English, who is now playing in Italy.

With King sidelined all season, there was no one, save for the inconsistent Eackles, capable of breaking down a defense with a one-on-one move. Now, that has changed.

"Teams won't try doubling me and risk leaving Chapman or [rookie Brent] Price open, 'cause they'll get burned," said Adams.

Added Grant, who became a $3 million-a-year man thanks to a $17 million offer sheet from the New York Knicks, "All five of our starters -- myself, Pervis, Tom, Rex and Michael -- can hit the open shot and put up big numbers. It hasn't been that way in the last four years I've been here."

Options on the bench

And Unseld now has the luxury of a deep bench.

The reserves include Coppin State's Stewart, who started 46 games at forward last season on the way to second team rookie honors; MacLean and Price, a pair of excellent open shooters; former Houston Rockets starter Buck Johnson, a forward who thrives in an up-tempo game; a healthy Smith at guard, who played sparingly as a rookie; and, finally, 6-foot-11 center Foster, who seemingly has realized his playing time depends on his willingness to rebound and set picks.

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