As the Bullets prepare for their 1981-82 Capital Centre debut in Saturday night's exhibition doubleheader, Coach Gene Shue says he is pleased with the progress of his inexperienced team.
After three weeks of two-a-day practices and splitting four exhibition games, the coach sat back at lunch yesterday and reflected on the development of the youngest team he's ever worked with.
"I'll tell you how young we are," he said, with a wide grin. "We rent a couple of cars for the players during camp and Andre McCarter had one. When we released him the other day, (trainer) John Lally asked me who should get the keys. He said the insurance policy states that the driver has to be over 25 and we don't have very many that old."
When Kevin Porter was lost for the season because of a torn Achilles' tendon, 27-year-old Kevin Grevey became the oldest starter, until John Lucas, 28, joined the team this week.
"We've made some real improvement," Shue said. "When we opened camp we had some real question marks, then when KP went down, that was a major setback. We were able to recover from that, though, because we picked up Lucas, who is one of the better playmakers in the league."
Shue's No. 1 project in training camp was Rick Mahorn and the second-year player from Hampton Institute has been his best pupil.
"I'm not disappointed in anything Rick has done," the coach said. "He was the key to camp because he plays such an important position. We were looking for rebounding and defense from him and he hasn't let us down.
"Rick had to come in and show us what he could do and he's worked very hard on a lot of different things, things that it takes to win. He's an entirely different player than he was last season. He's playing with a lot more confidence."
Mahorn was a second-round draft choice, the first small college player selected (35th) and many doubted that he had the background to compete in the NBA.
The 6-foot-10, 235-pounder led the NCAA Division II in rebounding his senior season with 15.8 a game and averaged 27.6 points, but didn't face strong opposition. As a rookie, he worked with Wes Unseld in practice and after playing sporadically for most of the year, finally got his chance when Unseld's knees gave out 10 games short of the finish line.
In the 11 games he started, Mahorn averaged nine points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots and finished with a flourish, scoring 28 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, in the finale against Cleveland.
"I worked with Wes a lot this summer," Mahorn said. "He said he was going to make me a good center or kill me, so I worked hard."
Shue plans to use Mahorn in much the same manner he did Unseld, which means at the high post where passing and setting picks will be his primary responsibilities.
"He's a lot more mobile than Wes and if he keeps improving in that area, he'll be able to beat people with his speed and quickness," Shue said. "Right now, he's not an offensive-minded player, but as his confidence develops, we'll be able to go to him more on offense."
Offense is a chief concern as the Bullets prepare for the New York Knicks Saturday night, following the 6 p. m. game between Philadelphia and New Jersey. They end their exhibition saeason against Atlanta Monday in New York.
"Scoring is going to be a problem, which is why we have to be very, very good defensively," Shue said. "We'll have to pass the ball well enough to get high-percentage shots because we just don't have a lot of scorers."
The back court seems set with Lucas and Grevey, and Shue says Greg Ballard has adjusted well in his switch from quick forward to the power spot left vacent by the trade of Elvin Hayes. However, Ballard's old spot still is wide open.
Carlos Terry was playing there, but he strained his left knee and hasn't played a game. He probably will open the season on the injured list, leaving Don Collins and rookie Charlie Davis to battle for the job.
"We're still looking," Shue said. "Davis still is making a lot of mistakes. Collins looked good against Cleveland (16 points in 21 minutes), but the key to that position is playing tough defense and rebounding."
Rookies Frank Johnson, who signed late, and Jeff Ruland, sidelined 10 days by a sprained ankle, are far behind and don't figure prominantly in Shue's plans for the season opener next Friday night in Boston.