Charlie Criss has proven at least one point in the first months of his rookie NBA season. Even though he is the smallest player in a league of giants, he no longer can be viewed as a sideshow attraction to be gawked at and talked about but never to be taken seriously.

As they say in the basketball locker rooms: "The man can play."

He is blessed with unusual strength for someone 5-foot-8 - his official height, he looks even smaller - and he has the kind of darting quickness that allows him to shake defenders with one sudden move. And leave him open for a jump shot, no matter how far from the basket, and it's almost an automatic two points.

If he were six inches taller, he well could be a superstar. He has all the tools, except height, to fit that label. But he's good enough to make you wonder why he wasn't in the NBA long ago, instead of needing to put in a five-year Eastern League apprenticeship before getting a chance.

At 28, Criss is everything a Walter Mitty dream was ever about, and maybe more. He looks like a ball boy who mistakenly wound up in an Atanta Hawk uniform, yet he is cocky enough to drive the lane and challenge Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to block his shot.

Unlike Monte Towe, another minature whose main ticket to the NBA was his friendship with David Thompson, Criss can take on an opponent far taller and not get emarrassed. He proved that in the Eastern League and on the New York playgrounds, neither of which he says are really that much different from the big league.

"Competition? Oh, it's good in the NBA," he said. "But I've played against a lot of good guards in my career. The Eastern League, now it wasn't hurting for guards."

Yet Criss led the Eastern League in scoring three times and twice was voted its most valuable player. He was left with nothing to conquer but the world of "Star Wars."

"You need someone to give you a break," he said. "But that's not easy to have happen. People are reluctant to take a chance, even when it really won't cost them anything.

"And I wanted a legitimate shot, not a no-chance situation. I already had decided to quit the Eastern League and either take anonbasketball job or may become a Gloetrotter. It looked like the NBA wasn't for me."

His size, of course, was the main problem. Why should an NBA team use a player who automatically has defensive matchup problems when it could sign someone else a lot taller who could be a adequate backup guard?

Fortunately for Criss, the Hawkes weren't following conventional NBA logic last summer. They were ridding their roster of high-priced players and, since the league exigencies dictate that each team carry 11 bodies, why not Criss? He had ability and a willingness to sign on for the $30,000 minimum salary. It was a bargain Atlanta couldn't pass up.

"Besides," said Hawk coach Hubic Brown, "he had the quickness we wanted and he could shoot and pass. And he was strong, like Calvin Murphy. He has big arms and legs for a man his size and he looked like he could take a physical beating."

So Criss, who was in Europe touring with the Harlem Globetrotters as part of their stooge team, the New Jersey Reds, decided to try out for the Hawks. "It meant passing up a chance at a standby job," he said, "but I figured why not?"

He also had received word that the Globetrotters' Meadowlark Lemon felt Criss was stealing his show.

"He said I was too good, that fans were becoming more interested in me," said Criss with a laugh.

Once before, Criss had been to a pro camp but he lasted only until the first exhibition game when the Knicks cut him. Before then, he hadn't even had a feeler from a team.

In college, he was a playmaking guard on New Mexico State's fine squad that lost to UCLA in the semi-finals of the 1970 NCAA basketball basket tournament at College Park. Even then, he was overshadowed by team-mates Sam Lacey and Jimmy Collins, both first-round picks. Criss wasn't among the 239 players chosen in the 1970 draft, in which 5-9 Calvin Murphy went in the second round to Houston.

And at first he couldn't even make the varsity of the Eastern League's Hartford Capitols. He was a taxi-squad member for all but four games in 1972 before advancing to sixth man the next year, then to league star and, finally, to the NBA.

"All the Hawks and Hubie promised me was a fair shot," said Criss. "He told me he'd let me play in exhibition games and see what I could do."

For Criss, the eldest of 11 children from a Yonkers, N.Y., family, the rest was easy. "I never doubted my ability," he said. "You know in your heart what you can do. I just played like I always have and I survived the cut."

It wasn't long before his pro also became believers in his abilities. He hasn't just been an extra body for the Hawks - he is their third guard and has been either their second- or third-leading scorer all season.

His 12-point includes one 30-point outburst against Phoenix in which he scored a team-record 20 points in the fourth quarter less than a week after he had been hospitalized with a colitis attack.

Crisis had collapsed under pain at his father's funeral and spent two days in the hospital. He finally decided to resume playing "to take my frustrations out on the court. My dad never saw me play. I'LL always regret that."

That isn't the only discomfort he has felt this season. He has been plagued by a sore shooting hand and he is regularly knocked to the floor during games by bigger opponents. He realizes each time out, he has something to prove.

"Yeah, I know they don't take me seriously at first," he said. "They look at me and say. "Sure." The first time around the league I've had to show them what I could do.

"I'm not afraid to drive on 'em. They have to show me they can handle me before I'll stop. Why should I be afraid of them.?"

After what he's been through, he has a point.