MOST NATIONAL Basketball Association general managers will tell you the draft is the only sure way to build a winner. Some have used it wisely, others have never quite been able to get the hang of it.

Contrary to popular belief, there are no magic formulas to a successful draft. It often comes down to a man's gut feeling, and a lot of luck.

"Every general manager works hard at his job, but there aren't any geniuses among us," said Phoenix General Manager Jerry Colangelo.

"Drafting is nothing more than calculated guessing," said Bullet GM Bob Ferry. "Most basketball people, given their choice of players, could build a winner. There are no secrets."

"The key to drafting is to be so bad that you get the first or second pick," said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "I guess that's the only fair way to do it, but the draft punishes the good teams because, unless they make a trade or something, they're always picking at the bottom."

Washington, Golden State and Los Angeles have had more first-round draft choices than any other teams in the NBA over the last five years -- seven. But the Bullets, with all seven still in the NBA, have more first round draft choices playing in the league than any other team.

All seven picks came late in the first round. The bullets had not first-round draft choice last season, trading it to Phoenix for the rights to Steve Malovic, who was later traded to San Diego.

In 1978, they drafted Roger Phegley with the 14th pick of the first round and Dave Corzine with the 18th pick. In 1977, they took Greg Ballard with the fourth pick and Bo Ellis with the 17th pick of the first round. In 1976, they selected Mitch Kupchak and Larry Wright as the 13th and 14th players. In 1975, Kevin Grevey was the 18th, and last, player picked in the first round.

Corzine, Ballard, Kupchak, Wright and Grevey are still with the Bullets. Phegley was traded to New Jersey earlier this season and Ellis was traded to Denver.

At the other extreme is San Diego, formerly the Buffalo Braves. The Clippers have had only one No. 1 draft choice in the last five years, in 1976 when they drafted Adrian Dantley. The Clippers have a No. 1 pick this year, but no second or third round picks and they already have traded away their No. 1 picks in 1982, '84, and '86.

"Much of that was done by a different management," said Clipper Vice President and General Manager Irv Kaze. "We have to live with it, though."

Kaze got Lloyd Free and Joe Bryant from Philadelphia for No. 1 draft choices in 1984 and 1986, two deals he says were good investments. "But I strongly believe that the draft is the way to build a team," he said. "There are too many teams in all sports who have proven that.

"You have to make some trades, but drafting well is the key to a successful team."

The Clippers also have only one player on their roster whom they drafted, Stan Pietkiewicz of Auburn, a seventh-round choice in 1978. Detroit, on the other hand, has eight players if drafted in its 11-man roster. Washington and New York each have seven players that they drafted on their teams.

"Most drafts are similar," Ferry said. "There are from seven to nine players who are consensus picks and after that, you have to scramble."

"It's a long first round," Colangelo said. "The top 10 is totally different from the next five, so the term No. 1 draft choice is a bit misleading.

"The draft is an equalizer. If you happen to have good timing and finish badly at the right time, you can turn the program around."

Red Auerbach, president and general manager of the Boston Celtics, the team, with the best record in the NBA right now, will have two first-round picks this season and neither the first of second pick overall because of a deal he worked out with Detroit.

Auerbach signed M. L. Carr as a free agent and worked out a deal with the Pistons as compensation. Detroit got Bob McAdoo, and sent along two first-round picks to the Celtics in what surely must be considered the steal of the season.

Auerbach agrees with Colangelo.

"How important your No. 1 draft pick is varies from year to year, depending on when you pick and who's out there," Auerbach said. "Sometimes there's an Abdul-Jabbar out there and other times a guy like John Lucas ends up as the first player selected.

"Lucas is a good player, but you aren't going to turn a program around with a guard."

The draft, this year on June 10, is not the only way to build a winner, but the consensus is that it's more reliable than most alternatives.

"With rare exceptions, I'm a firm believe in the draft as the way to build a team and then you add the pieces of the puzzle through trades," Colangelo said. "If you look at the successful teams, that's how they've done it. Free agents are starting to play a part now, too."

The Celtics are a classic example of that philosophy. Larry Bird, Dave Cowens and Cedric Maxwell all were drafted. Trades were made for Chris Ford, Rick Robey and Tiny Archibald. Carr and Pete Maravich were signed as free agents.

"All of the pieces just fit right together," said Auerbach.

"You'd prefer to build a team through the draft, but you have to do whatever you can to build it, sometimes it's through trades and free agents," Ferry said. "A lot of teams have traded away better teams than they've kept."

"You'e got to be careful when you build through trades," said Chicago Bull General Manager Rod Thorn. "Usually the kinds of players you can get are total malcontents and people other teams don't want around.

"We had a lot of offers to trade out pick last year and we've had a few offers for it this year, but we want to keep it. We think the way to build is through the draft.

"It's tough to build through the draft in a big city, though," Thorn added, "because it's slow, and people get impatient."

Says Colangelo: "There's no bible that's been written on how to build a winner. It varies. There is so much pressure on you to win, though, that you do whatever you can."

There are a number of factors that influence a general manager as to whom he drafts. Some go for the best athlete available, others try to fill a void and draft for a position; some draft for the present and others for the future; some prefer character over talent and some are lucky enough to get both.

"We have a philosophy we've followed for years," Colangelo said. "We try to protect our down side through the draft by taking certain types of people -- high character, quality people. We don't want any problems. Life is too short."

A team's needs also can change quickly.

"When we took Mich (Kupchak) and Larry (Wright), it was for immediate help," Ferry said. "but Phegley and Corzine were drafted for the future. It will depend on what you need at the time.

"This year we'll probably be forced into drafting a talent, maybe even at the expense of some character.

"We'll be picking in the middle of the pack somewhere, so we can't worry about it. We'll just have to be down."

Timing also is critical in determining careers, and champions, in the NBA.

"Through the years there were a lot of players who could have made out team if we weren't so good," Ferry said."There are a lot of players in college and in other leagues who can play in the NBA in the right place and at the right time. Maurice Cheeks of Philadelphia is a good example of what I mean.

"Philadelphia got him on the second round in 1978. That ws just the right time for Cheeks. It it had been another time he probably wouldn't have made it, no matter how good he was. I saw him twice in college, but he wasn't that highly scouted. He got a chance to play, though, and has developed into a really nice player.

"When I draft a person, the only thing that concerns me is that I know exactly what I'm getting -- strengths and weakness.

"There were many first-round draft choices who I knew wouldn't make it, but there wasn't anything I could do about it. The circumstances that the risk was better than the alternative."

When Ferry finally got a high draft pick in 1977, he made sure not to waste it. With the fourth pick overall, obtained in a trade with Atlanta which sent Truck Robinson to the Hawks for Tom Henderson and a No. pick, Ferry took Ballard from Oregon.

"There wasn't a possible thing we could have done to find out more about Greg Ballard than we did," said Ferry. "We flew out to his school and everything. And then after seeing his first summer league game, I couldn't sleep for a week. He was that bad. But everything eventually worked out.

"That was fairly easy, because we were concentrating on only four or five people. Right now I'm zeroing in on 40."

"This is going to be a good draft year," said Auerbach. "Just how good depends on who goes hardship."

Colangelo says this is an "exceptional draft year, even if no underclassmen come out."

The big names include centers Joe Barry Carroll of Purdue and Mike Gminski of Duke, forwards Michael Brooks of La Salle and Mike O'Koren of North Carolina and guards Darrell Griffith of Louisville, Ron Lester of Iowa and Sam Worthen of Marquette.

Kentucky's Kyle Macy was drafted as a choice by Phoenix last season with the draft choice obtained from Washington for Malovic.

There also are a number of talented underclassmen who could have significant impact on the way the draft proceeds, if they choose to turn pro.

Auerbach, for example, wants 7-foot-4 Virginia freshman Ralph Sampson and has indicated he will take him if he leaves school. He also is interested in Carroll and Gminski. Boston could have the first pick in the draft if the Pistons win a coin flip with last place team in the west.

Other highly-regarded underclassmen are Buck Williams and Albert King of Maryland, Gene Banks of Duke, DeWayne Scales of Tennessee and Mark Aguirre of DePaul.

None of the underclassmen has said he will turn pro and they have until April 25 -- 45 days before the draft -- to declare their intentions.

"I don't think any top players will go hardship unless they are going to be in the third or fourth player picked," Ferry said. "For an undergraduate to go hardship, something usually has to be wrong. Either he isn't happy at his school or there is some special reason.

"Other than Scales, I don't know who might be coming out. A guy like Sampson might be because you know he'll be the first or the second player picked.

"Earl Jones (of Spingarn High School) is a prospect, but I don't know if enough teams know enough about him to warrant him skipping college."

If there is one underclassman other than Sampson that all of the scouts are talking about, it's Maryland's Buck Williams.

"He's a real blue chip pro," Ferry said. "He's good at what he does. He knows what he can do and he doesn't do what he can't, and that's a hell of an asset."

The draft gets the players into the league and onto a particular team, but few stay put long. The current average length of service with one team is 1.8 years.

Last season, a college player could be drafted by one of 22 teams. This year it will be 23, with the addition of Dallas as an expansion franchise.

Dallas will select 11th in the draft, after all of the non-playoff teams have had a pick.

So who will "win" in the draft?

"We all win a little bit," Ferry said, "but the guys picking first win a lot. Remember, this is just like playing roulette."