Even at this stage of the season, the NBA continues to call players like Walter Davis, Marques Johnson and Bernard King rookies. That's like still identifying Jimmy Carter as a peanut farmer.

When Johnson dunks an alley-oop pass or Davis spins along the baseline for a layup or King turns and swishes a corkscrew jumper, they aren't performing like some inexperienced first-year athlete who still can recite his college fight song.

They are legitimate pro stars who probably have a lot of veterans already considering early retirement. And in this Year of the Rookie in the NBA, there also are a bunch of other peach-fuzz kids who have rewritten that chapter in the coaching manual dealing with the value of experience.

Los Angeles Coach Jerry West is the first to admit his Lakers wouldn't be surging down the stretch if they hadn't drafted playmaker Norm Nixon.

Seattle thinks so highly of 6-foot-11 Jack Sikma that the Sonics point to his emergence as a starter as a major reason for their surprising showing this season.

And where would the New York Knicks be without rookies named Glen Gondrezick, Ray Williams and Toby Knight?

Indiana coach Bobby Leonard thought enough of center James Edwards in midseason to exchange Adrian Dantley and his high salary for the third-round Laker pick. Former Clemson center Tree Rollins is among the league leaders in blocked shots for Atlanta and guards Rickey Green and Ricky Marsh have started for Golden State, as has Anthony Roberts for Denver.

If guard Otis could have avoided injuries, Kansas City is convinced he would have improved on his 14.5 scoring average. But even at three-quarters strength, he is perhaps the Kings' most valuable property.

A rookie even has supplied - after John Havlicek - the best feature story in the league this season. No newspaperman with a feel for the downrodden has been able to resist and tale of 5-8 Charlie Criss, the 28-year-old Hawk who moved from the Eastern League to the big leagues although he resembles a balding ball boy.

The Bullets certainly have seen all they want to of these young upstarts. Especially Bobby Dandrige, who has to defend against Johnson, Davis and King. But Washington still has to deal with some of them over the final 11 games of the season, beginning with King tonight in an 8:05 contest at New Jersey.

"We're done oure best to make these guys look great," Bullet Coach Dick Motta said earlier this year after Davis had rallied Phoenix to victory. "Why do they all do so well against us?"

Motto can take solice in the fact that the best of the rookies have had few bad nights against any club. Davis, the odds-on choices as rookie of the year and a potential first-team all-league forward, especially has spread around his best performances.

"He's torn everybody up," said Sun guard paul Westphal. "He is the best forward in the league, period. Look at his stats and look at how he has played. He's gone against the best of them and no one has been able to handle him."

The Suns like to think no rookie has had such an inpact on the NBA since that big guy from UCLA, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, put on a Milwaukee uniform. They may be stretching it a bit, but Davis has been astonishing over the last half of the year, when he has raised his average to 24 points a game (10th in the league) by turning in 30-point games as routinely as Mitch kupchak dives to the floor for loose balls.

Davis has been called another Havlieek but his style really isn't similar. He isn't spectecular, so it's not unusual to see him score 30 points and still wonder how he did it. But he is extremely quick, he rarely takes bad shots and he knows how to score in heavy traffic.

Johnson's technique couldn't be more different. He can't shoot from the outisde, like Davis or King, and he really isn't that offensive-minded. But he can match strength with bigger players and soar over smaller foes. His is a game of power dunks, quick fakes and drives, and persistent rebounding.

And like Davis, he has been a major reason his club has turned into a winner this season.

"Marques does things that make you a good coach," said the Bucks' Don Nelson about his leading rebounder and No. 2 scorer. "You don't see many 6-7 players who can dominate inside. He can."

King has scored 23.7 points a game, 11th in the league, his history of off-court problems in college has not followed him to New Jersey. And it's no wonder that Dandridge believes King eventually will be the best of the three super rookies, since King happens to play a lot like the Bullet forward.

Both Dandrige and King want the ball in the low post, where the game becomes a one-on-one test of wills. But while Dandridge will back in and either step back for a jumper or move for a drive, King prefers to turn and shoot over his opponent. He pads his average with a knack for picking up easy rebounds off the offensive boards and turning them into baskets.

Had these three faltered this season, the Lakers' Nixon probably would be the top rookie. He has caused West to bow his head with his occasionally erratic play, but he also has become the glue holding the Lakers' superstars together in the season's final weeks.

Nixon has supplied the quickness and playmaking at guard the Lakers needed so badly last season. He also is contributing 13 points and seven assists a game, fourth in and league.

Historians will note that a seventh-round pick (Phoenix's Alvin Scott from Oral Roberts) and an eight-round pick (Golden State's Marsh) shamed the NBA experts by making it way beyond the first squad cuts. And that a second-round choice, Washington's Phil Walker, held his own one night against the immortal Havlicek.

"The fans better soak in what they are seeing from this year's rookie group," said Motta. "From everything I've been told, next year's draft won't be nearly as good."

That has to come as welcome news to a lot of veterans around the NBA.