He hardly qualifies for the Bullets' rebuilding program, but all of a sudden Spencer Haywood is doing his share to help the young team through its growing pains.

After sitting out two games and playing sporadically in several others last month, the 31-year-old journeyman has worked his way into Coach Gene Shue's starting lineup.

Making his third straight start, Haywood responded with a season-high 16 points and eight rebounds in Saturday night's 94-87 victory over Cleveland before 5,798 at Capital Centre.

Following up their memorable 114-88 rout of the Knicks Thursday night in New York, the Bullets boosted their record to 6-11 and six times now have held opponents under 90 points.

"I had to learn the defensive system before I could play," Haywood admits. "That's the name of the game around here. It's a whole new system and I had to get used to it."

During his checkered career, in which he has compiled a 20-point scoring average, Haywood never was known for his defense. He probably didn't work very hard at it because he didn't have to. Now he does and he realizes it.

"I knew when I signed with the Bullets that it would take me a while to adjust to this team," he said. "Also, it took some time to get my body in shape. Now I'm in as good a shape as I've ever been in."

Shue obviously was down on Haywood last month, often playing him five minutes or less, but abruptly, he gave the 6-foot-8 former all-star a starting assignment Dec. 1 against San Antonio.

Playing only 26 minutes, Haywood made six of eight shots and grabbed eight rebounds. So in three games as a regular, he has totaled 34 points and 21 rebounds.

The emergence of Haywood adds to Shue's flexibility in his front line and that made a big difference against Cleveland. By teaming Jeff Ruland with either Rick Mahorn or Jim Chones, Shue created a mismatch against the Cavaliers' power forward, 6-7 Kenny Carr.

"I had the smaller man on me so and we were able to take advantage of it," said Ruland, who led all scorers with 21 points while playing only 25 minutes. "When Carr was on me, I was able to get position on him and we ran a lot of plays for me."

With Haywood and Ruland alternating at power forward and Mahorn and Chones sharing the pivot, Shue can juggle enough to create a lot of mismatches.

"This was Spencer's best game," Shue said. "I was particularly pleased with his defense. He really worked hard."

Shue said he will continue to start Haywood on the West Coast swing that opens with a televised game Tuesday night at Los Angeles and moves on to San Diego and Phoenix.

"Spencer definitely plays better as a starter," the coach said. "Ruland has showed the ability to come off the bench and get right into the flow of the game, so I'd rather use him the way we have."

Ruland has been playing primarily in the second and fourth quarters lately and says he is very content with his reserve role.

"I started in high school and I started in college, so this is new to me," the 6-11 former Iona star said. "But I don't mind coming off the bench. If you start you play 25 minutes and if you come off the bench you play 25, so what's the difference?"

The difference, of course, is that if Haywood can continue to provide 16 points and Ruland can relieve him and add 21, the Bullets will be getting more scoring out of that forward spot than even Elvin Hayes regularly produced.