Persistence paying off for Smith But Bullets guard has much to prove

March 22, 1993|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

When Washington Bullets assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik was asked recently to give a progress report on guard LaBradford Smith, a 1991 first-round draft pick, he responded with a quotation from President Calvin Coolidge.

"Nothing in the world will take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent."

It was Bzdelik's way of saying that despite the revolving-door policy in the Bullets' backcourt this season because of injuries, Smith had been slow to seize the opportunity.

"The fact that LaBradford has been in and out of the lineup has been no fault but his own," Bzdelik said. "He fits in with a whole bunch of guys in this league who will tease you ever so often with an outstanding performance, but then disappoint you."

But Smith finally may have passed the teasing stage. When injuries put Rex Chapman and aggressive rookie Doug Overton on the injured list, coach Wes Unseld was left with little DTC alternative but to start the former Louisville star at shooting guard.

Getting substantial minutes since Feb. 18, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard has averaged 16.6 points, shot 51 percent and made 59 of his past 62 free throws.

On Friday in Chicago, he had incredulous Bulls fans asking, "LaBradford Who?," after he burned Michael Jordan for 37 points on 15-for-20 shooting.

Of course, Jordan gained more than a measure of revenge at the Capital Centre Saturday night when he scored 49 points while playing three quarters in the Bulls' 126-101 romp. But that the NBA's brightest star sought to even the score with a relatively-obscure rival was evidence of how far Smith has progressed in recent months.

"LaBradford has been much more consistent the last couple of games," said Unseld, who constantly prods Smith for defensive lapses.

"He is understanding what we're asking him to do out there. When he's on the floor, he has to be the focal point on offense and make the other team respect him. Defensively, he just has to make a concerted effort to guard somebody."

After impressing the Bullets' coaches in a minicamp after the 1991 draft, Smith returned home to Texas and severely sprained his ankle in a pickup game.

He missed all of training camp and the first 27 games of his rookie season before being activated in late December. By that time, Smith was out of shape and sync and spent the rest of the season playing catch-up.

"That ankle injury really held me back," he said. "It started to get to me mentally because it was the first time in my basketball career I'd been sidelined for a long period."

Smith worked in the off-season to report to his second training camp in top condition. He had a daily regimen of weightlifting and running and lost some 20 pounds, providing him with more mobility.

Again this season, nagging injuries have curtailed his progress. Just when he started to feel comfortable, an ankle injury in late February sidelined him for four games.

"The coaches know I'm capable of playing," he said.

"That's why I think they've been so patient with me. But I can't fall back on having one good game and two bad ones. I have to put it all together on a regular basis."

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