Walter Davis is the best rookie in the NBA. People are going to be surprised. They don't know how good he can be.

Mitch Kupchak, November, 1977

When he first entered the Atlantic Coast Conference, Walter Davis was hailed as the second coming of David Thompson. He proved to be much less.By his senior season, he wasn't even the best player on his own North carolina squad.

But Davis has been far mor successful living up to the prediction of his former teammate, Kupchak. As far as any basketball fan in this land of sunshine is concerned, he is the runaway choice for NBA rookie of the year.

Just as important, he is the major reason the Suns, in the Washington Bullets' opponent here today at 6:45 p.m., have been transformed from a 34-48 club in 1976-77 to a 35-16 outfit that now ranks behind only Portland and Philadelphia for the leagues's best record.

"Walter has been the key to what we've been able to do," said Sun Coach John MacLeod. "He's come here and played like a seasoned pro from the start."

Davis' instant success has been the result of a perfect marriage of team and player. Teh Suns were desperate for a quick, good-shooting small forward who could run on the fast break and play decent defense. Davis was looking for a squad that would utulize his individual talents to the upmost.

In MacLeod's team-oriented offense, which features the same kind of unselfishness that makes Postland's attack function so well, Davis is allowed to maneuver one-on-one almost at will. Opponents have found containing him an elusive assignment.

At North Carolina, Coach Dean Smith frowned on such individual heroics and Davis oftentimes seemed inhibited by the Tar Heels' offensive structure. He showed spurts of individual imaginations but not to the extent he has as a pro.

But he did learn fundamentals from Smith and that training has served him well with the Suns. He handles the ball like a guard and he can use sharp fakes and a quick first step to get around almost any defender. And he rarely makes so-called rookoe mistakes.

"I never expected to start, much less do what I'm doing," said Davis, who is averaging 23 points and shooting 52 percent, both among the league leaders."I just had no idea what to expect once I got to this level."

"It's good that we play almost the same kind of system as at North Carolina," he said. "The same type of defense - overplaying and helping out. And almost the same offense - a passing game, lots of picks, and having a couple of plays where each player can go one on one."

Davis moves like polished figure skater, gliding effortlessly before shifting into second gear. He is tough to gauge because he uses so little energy. But once he senses a letdown, especially around the baseline, he spurts free.

"I've always been able to work one on one," he said. "I've always enjoyed it and I think I'm getting better all the time. I still like to think I'm a better team player, but sometimes you are forced to go one on one."

He honed his skills as a youngster in Charlotte against 12 older brothers and sisters (NBA joke: Walter could not have made his family's 11-man roster) before advancing to South Mecklinburg High, which also produced Bobby Jones. He later followed Jones to North Carolina.

Pro scouts didn't know what to expect from him. They knew he was quick and had decent shooting range. But he was erratic enough in college and his scoring average (15.7) was low enough to make some wonder what he would do on a more competitive level.

Last season, when the Suns nosedived so drastically after going to the NBA final in 1975-76, they were getting only sporadic play from small forwards Curtis Perry and Tom Van Arsdale.

But Davis, the only rookie to make last week's all-star roster, has been marvelously consistent. He has led the team in scoring 20 times, hit a season high of 40 points against Boston and is shooting 82 percent from the foul line.

"The more I play, the more confident I'm getting," said Davis. "You find out what you can do in this league and what you can't. I'm just having fun playing."