Muresan perfect fit for Bullets

February 06, 1994|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Sun Staff Writer

By NBA standards it was a simple shot, a running jumper by Michael Adams that at the time gave the Washington Bullets a five-point lead. And since the play happened at the end of the third quarter, the shot generated hardly any response from the players on the Bullets' bench.

But there was 7-foot-7 center Gheorghe Muresan, who jumped to his feet screaming as if Adams' shot had won the team an NBA championship. Then the rookie center sat down and offered his hand to his teammates, not getting any response until Tom Gugliotta -- with a perplexed look on his face -- finally offered him five that appeared to settle down Muresan.

"He's like a little kid," Gugliotta said after Friday's 102-95 win over the Philadelphia 76ers at the Spectrum. "I don't think he's had a bad day in his life. He's always upbeat."

Any why shouldn't Muresan be happy? After playing a season in the French League, where he averaged 18.7 points and 10.3 rebounds, Muresan this season decided to take a chance in the NBA. After being drafted in the second round (30th overall) by the Bullets, the 22-year-old was expected to be little more than a project.

But Muresan's play over the past eight days has shown he's no Manute Bol. Given increased minutes over the past four games because of the lack of production from starting center Kevin Duckworth, Muresan has proven he can play in the league, averaging 11.2 points and 9.7 rebounds in a little more than 24 minutes.

* Against the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O'Neal on Jan. 29, Muresan had a then-career-high 10 rebounds and seven points, while frustrating O'Neal late in the game.

* Against the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 1, Muresan scored a then-career-high 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. It prompted Pacers 7-4 center Rick Smits to call Muresan the strongest player he has ever matched up against.

* Against the New York Knicks on Feb. 2, Muresan scored a career-high 15 points and grabbed seven rebounds, leading Knicks coach Pat Riley to say that Muresan "can definitely stick in this league."

* And on Friday against the Sixers, Muresan recorded his first career double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.

After Friday's win, Muresan was asked whether it was important that he started the second half of the game, a first for him this season.

"It's important that we won and I'm very happy," said Muresan, who will be 23 next week. "I wasn't expecting it [to start the second half]."

There's no question that Muresan is one of the most likable players in the league. His size -- he's the tallest player in NBA history -- generates "oohs" and "aahs" from fans wherever the Bullets play. In New Jersey last month, several fans wore Muresan masks. But, like Bol, the fans seeing him for the first time expect to see something of a sideshow.

That was just the atmosphere at the Miami Arena on Jan. 23 when, in a blowout win by the Miami Heat, Muresan and Bol, who is 7-6, battled in the final period.

But unlike Bol, who could block shots but do little else, Muresan knows the game. Opponents are finding that he can pass out of the post, and knows how to fill the lane when his man chooses to double team. And, watching him hit jumpers from the three-point line in warm-ups, you realize he has a feathery touch that has made him a 50 percent shooter.

His size and his willingness to position himself around the basket make him a tough rebounder, with a knack for quickly kicking the ball out to guards. Although he's not a shot-blocker, he plays good pivot defense that forces opposing players farther from the basket.

"He's a lot like Mark Eaton," Riley said. "He doesn't block shots like Eaton, but his size is definitely a presence."

Confidence has never been a problem for Muresan, who in training camp felt he could play right away in the NBA. He had success against some of the top big men in Europe, once outscoring Arvidas Sabonis 21-10 in a European Championship game. Sabonis, from the former Soviet Union, is considered to be the best big man outside the NBA.

Muresan admits that "speed has been the greatest obstacle." Watching the knock-kneed Muresan run down the floor, he seems in pain. But while not swift of foot, his size allows him to cover a lot of ground.

Plus, he plays with enthusiasm, something the Bullets have not gotten out of Duckworth this season. Duckworth played a season-low nine minutes Friday night and failed to get off the bench in the second half. Last week, the 7-foot veteran had another meeting with coach Wes Unseld to discuss his role with the team.

"Right now, I'm definitely struggling," Duckworth said. "It's very difficult."

When asked whether he would consider starting Muresan, Unseld said that he doesn't know how much more he can get out of his rookie.

"I think he's playing very well," Unseld said. "He's very excitable."

Muresan is not at all worried about starting. He's just happy to be in the league, and happy to contribute.

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