A PHOTO CAPTION ON THE FRONT OF YESTERDAY'S STYLE SECTION MISIDENTIFIED A CHICAGO BULLS PLAYER. NO. 34 IS BILL WENNINGTON. (PUBLISHED 02/28/98)

It's doubtful that even Steven Spielberg could develop a dinosaur drama to compete with the real-life saga of the Toronto Raptors.

During a seven-day stretch this month, the team was sold, switched coaches, traded its biggest star and acquired six new players.

"I can't honestly say I've ever seen anything like this in all the years I've been around," says Earl Cureton, a Raptors strength and conditioning coach who played in the National Basketball Association for 12 years. "It's been a wild situation."

If you're 18-year-old Tracy McGrady, who was playing high school basketball just a year ago, these latest developments must look like some kind of strange prank. In what has been a tumultuous initiation for the NBA's youngest player, McGrady became an instant millionaire, was transplanted to a foreign country to live alone and gradually confronted the pressures of being a professional athlete.

Now, all of a sudden, most of the people who began the journey with him are gone: the general manager who drafted him, the coach he butted heads with, the public relations man he relied on for the inside skinny, key teammates who nurtured him.

"It's kind of been bugging me a little bit," McGrady says with classic understatement. "I'm just trying to see who the players I'm going to be playing with are."

It's hard to overstate the chaos and bad luck that have characterized McGrady's rookie season. Nettlesome injuries. Uneven playing time. A team with the worst record in the Eastern Conference. That would be enough right there to spoil anyone's season. Then, General Manager Isiah Thomas departed for NBC to be a color commentator and it was as if McGrady and his teammates had lost a father.

But that was just a warm-up for what began Feb. 12. First, the Raptors announced that communications mogul Allan Slaight was selling the team to the owners of the National Hockey League's Toronto Maple Leafs. The next day the Raptors dealt Damon Stoudamire, the team's captain and best all-around performer, to the Portland Trail Blazers in a six-player swap. Five days later Toronto sent three of its players to Boston for four Celtics. Included was Kenny Anderson, the best player landed in the Stoudamire deal, who refused to report to the Raptors.

But the turmoil doesn't end there.

This week one of the new Raptors, Gary Trent, was sentenced to five days in jail for violating the terms of his probation. The one-year probation stemmed from Trent's conviction last March for harassing his pregnant girlfriend, who accused him of punching and kicking her. The probation violation was the result of an incident last summer in which Trent assaulted an acquaintance who accidentally set off a burglar alarm at his home in Oregon.

The only good news for the Raptors in that episode is that Trent won't have to serve his time until after the season.

For a team that was short on veterans to begin with, the Raptors now have only four players over the age of 25. From McGrady's standpoint, only four of the players who began training camp with him back in October are on the current 12-man active roster.

Guys like to talk about how the league is a business, but the relationships developed through basketball are more important than many let on. This is especially true for rookies, who are trying to decipher the NBA's backstage dramas while proving they deserve to be on the same court with their more experienced peers.

Thus, the players who left McGrady behind were not just teammates who drank the same Gatorade after practice. They occupied a small but significant niche in his developing new world.

Stoudamire, for instance, was a mentor to T-Mac, as everyone calls McGrady. He sat next to him on the team plane and constantly dispensed advice. Carlos Rogers, a regular churchgoer, was the team's jester. He sometimes goaded McGrady into singing gospel hymns in the locker room and urged him to be on guard against the lures of the night. Walt Williams, who plays the same position as McGrady, is an amateur barber who cut the kid's hair on the road. Popeye Jones, a family man with three children, was another good influence on McGrady.

They're no longer around.

"I still got Marcus {Camby}, I still got Big O {Oliver Miller}," McGrady says, citing two of the old Raptors he is close to. "We really don't have that much experience on the court and that many vets," he adds, "but we just have to do the best we can."

With the Stoudamire trade came the resignation of head coach Darrell Walker, who felt that without his star player it would be difficult to bring the team back to respectability. McGrady was not sorry to see Walker go. They never really clicked. Walker had problems with McGrady's work habits and McGrady was at pains to figure out Walker.

"I didn't know what he really wanted me to do," McGrady says now. "Some nights I'd get playing time and other nights I wouldn't play at all. I was getting kind of frustrated because I really couldn't handle it. I was coming from high school where I never came off the court."

Walker's misfortune turns out to be McGrady's good fortune.

Butch Carter, Walker's assistant, was installed as head coach for the remainder of the season and promised to give McGrady more playing time. In fact, he has all but guaranteed him a minimum of 20 minutes a night in a game that is 48 minutes long. That's good playing time for a rookie.

"This franchise needs to see what kind of player he is," says Carter.

Coaching is a lot like playing chess. Players are pieces that are shuttled in and out of games to gain strategic advantage. A coach must know not only what moves his players can perform as individuals, but how these players complement one another. The more time McGrady spends on the floor, the more Carter can evaluate whether McGrady is destined for greatness or destined to be a supporting cast member.

Walker had become impatient with the slow pace of McGrady's development. But Carter says, "It's a two-way street. Who's going to show him {how to be a pro}? Look, we draft an 18-year-old kid and then we don't take responsibility for him? We all have to take responsibility."

Unlike Walker, whose coaching career began at the pro level, Carter started out coaching at his high school alma mater in Ohio. He then spent three seasons as a college assistant, which helps explain his enthusiasm for bringing along McGrady. "I look at Tracy McGrady and I say I never had a kid like this. I love his talent."

Carter has McGrady on a mandatory program to improve his shooting and ball handling. Those workouts are being conducted by assistant coach Jim Thomas, who, like McGrady, is from Florida. In addition, Carter has added mandatory weight training to the team's practices, and that has added bulk to McGrady's slim 6-foot-8 frame.

"I think he's going to be really good," says Carter. "He has no fears. He's taken our conditioning workouts seriously. I think he knows I want to do what's best for him."

In the first five games under his new coach, McGrady averaged 24.4 minutes a game -- a vast improvement over his season average of 14.5 minutes heading into last night's game against San Antonio.

He has made the most of his increased playing time. On Feb. 13 against the New Jersey Nets, the first game with Carter at the helm, the rookie scored a career-high 22 points. He followed that up with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists against the Miami Heat.

"My confidence is way higher than before everything started happening," McGrady says. "I'm just going out there and having fun now." Earlier this season, as he was struggling on the court, McGrady lost a childhood friend when Henry Andrews was killed in a car accident. Before games, he started writing the initials "HA" on his sneakers in tribute. His action was hardly noticed by the fans -- or his teammates, for that matter. He hadn't promoted his intentions. But to some who took note, it illustrated his capacity to handle setbacks, to turn around difficult circumstances.

"Even though he's going through a lot of stuff, and he's young," says Coach Cureton, "I like the way Tracy is holding up." ABOUT THIS SERIES:

Eighteen-year-old Tracy McGrady is living the dream of kids all over America. He's gone from high school directly to the National Basketball Association. Overnight, a small-town kid is dealing with riches, fame and all manner of temptation. The Washington Post is following McGrady's transition this season, writing periodically about the new world he is entering and the environment that shaped him. CAPTION: Toronto Raptor rookie Tracy McGrady, ball in hand, goes up against Chicago Bull Toni Kukoc in a recent game. CAPTION: New Toronto Raptors Coach Butch Carter has promised Tracy McGrady more playing time.