The immediate and popular reaction is to label him a failure, an athletic washout at age 21. And it is true enough that an enormous opportunity has been wasted so far. Still, the obvious answers about Bill Willoughby always lead to more questions.

You may remember Willoughby as the last of three teen-agers who leaped from high school to pro basketball. The others were Moses Malone, now an NBA all-star, and Darryl Dawkins, an occasional starter for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Four years later, in what would be his senior year of college, Willoughby no longer plays the game many thought he would one day dominate.

He is in San Diego, his lawyer-agent, Jerry Davis, said, "really trying to cope with the reality that he's out of basketball for the year, gathering his resources to give it one more shot. That's the fairest assessment I can offer."

So what went wrong? And who is to blame? Surely Willoughby should have gone to college, even if he only majored in jump shots and dunks. Or perhaps not.

"The kids with the maturity to handle such a big transition," one major college basketball coach said, "usually stay in school -- because of that same maturity."

A man who watched Willoughby closely in junior high school and at Dwight Morrow High in Englewood, N.J., said: "He wasn't a bad student. But one of the biggest problems was he was spoiled. People kinda catered to him -- and then when he got in a man's world, the change was so abrupt he couldn't handle it."

The college of his choice was Kentucky.

"He was drafted just as he was turning 18," said Kentucky assistant Leonard Hamilton. "Any college coach will tell you most freshmen have so much to learn. In the pros, they teach you the plays. They don't teach you to read offensive situations, defensive situations, fast-break situations and rebounding situations.

"You should already have those techniques mastered."

Dawkins was chosen on the first round of the 1975 draft; Willoughby was drafted in the second round by the Atlanta Hawks and signed what Davis called "a five-year guaranteed contract, with people who were interested in him. Everyone thought he was somebody who in his fourth or fifth year would definitely be a factor."

Willoughby averaged 14 minutes and 4.7 points for 62 games his rookie season. Then there was a coaching change, from Cotton Fitzsimmons to Hubie Brown. And an injury that ended his Hawk career after 39 games in his second season.

"It was against Chicago, on a Saturday night, February 10, I believe, because the incident remains so vivid," Davis said. "He hurt his foot on a rebound. Hubie had been giving him decent playing time, and thought the kid could have made the next trip.

"Hubie has very little patience with injuries. And Willow did not play one second again for the Hawks."

He was traded to Buffalo -- and reunited with Fitzsimmons -- last season and averaged nearly 20 minutes and seven points. Then the entire franchise, except for Fitzsimmons, was traded and moved to San Diego. And Willoughby lost his angel -- and later his job.

"The San Diego situation was ludicrous," Davis said. "I think (coach) Gene Shue made up his mind about Spoon (Nick Weatherspoon) and that was it. Spoon was Shue's man. Willow didn't get much of a chance."

Possibly, his reputation had preceded him to the coast. He is seen in much of basketball as a player who wastes his considerable talent. Davis will not call him lazy, but admits: "He is not always able to convince people he is playing to his maximum.

"Malone and Dawkins always worked summers to improve. Willow wouldn't pick up a ball in the summertimes." And the executive director of the Western Basketball Association, Larry Creger, said Willoughby flunked a tryout with Tucson three months ago "because, according to the coach, he did not give it all he had."

In addition to the obvious immaturity, some familiar patterns became clear. In most sports, from the major colleges through the professional level, coaches tend to develop pets and quickly discard players who fail to impress immediately.

Also, the fate of so many players, regardless of their skills, depends heavily on a team's style. Weatherspoon seemed on the way out of the NBA last season; as a regular, he had 23 points against the Bullets the other night.

"I always think of Charles Cleveland," Davis said. "I was watching him (with Alabama) in the NIT when he was a sophomore and sitting next to (Bullets general manager) Bob Ferry. Later, Ferry said: 'Get me that guy.'

"Two years later, I ran into Ferry and asked him what he thought of Cleveland -- and he said he doubted if the kid could get into the Bullets' tryout camp. Did Charles Cleveland make the wrong decision (by not turning pro early)?

"Willow's parents have taken a good buffeting from the press (about not kicking their son off to college). But would Rod Griffin's parents trade experiences?" (Griffin was an All-America last season at Wake Forest; he was cut by Denver this season.)

At 6-8, Willoughby is three inches shorter than Dawkins; at 205 pounds, he is nearly 50 pounds lighter. And his hometown source said: "I'm not sure the area produces the tough type of athlete. We have excellent players, but not the hungry guys who want to get out."

There is as much pressure at Kentucky as with most NBA teams. If a player fails to perform well in a hurry, he soon is replaced. Without Willoughby, the Wildcats still won the NCAA title last season.

"You always take a chance on something," Davis said. "With Willow, the money will be coming in a long, long time (because of deferred payments). It's not the worst thing in the world to be his age and realize you can stay in the rack for 15 years and not have to worry too much about money.

"And the kid by and large doesn't regret things half as much as everybody else."