Rick Mahorn is rapidly gaining respect in his first venture through the NBA as a starting center.

A second-round draft choice from a Division II school (Hampton Institute), Mahorn was considered by many scouts as just another in a long line of anonymous backups to Wes Unseld, who seemed able to play forever.

When Unseld's aching knees finally gave out in the closing weeks of last season, Mahorn got his chance. The 6-foot-10, 235-pounder from Hartford, Conn., responded by averaging nine points, 10 rebounds and 2.4 blocked shots in the final five games.

This year, he was Gene Shue's No. 1 project in training camp and was "our hardest working and most improved player," according to his coach. Now, as the season progresses, Mahorn is showing signs of developing into an outstanding player.

In his first meeting with the master, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, here Tuesday night, Mahorn limited him to 11 points until the final two minutes. Abdul-Jabbar scored the Lakers' last five points on two dunks and a free throw, but that only equaled Mahorn's total of 16.

"Rick really played a great game," Shue said. "He did an excellent job of containing Kareem. We're stressing defense and he's a very important part of our plan."

The Bullets rank fifth in the league in team defense, allowing an average of only 100.2 points per game, and Mahorn has played a vital role. He is sixth in the league in blocked shots with 2.29 a game and leads the team in rebounding with 9.4 per game.

"I'm still experimenting," Mahorn said today before the team worked out in preparation for Friday night's game in San Diego (10:30, WTOP-1500). "I'm meeting most of these guys for the first time, so I try different things to see what works, what I can do and what I can't."

Most young centers look forward to facing Abdul-Jabbar as much as they would taking a six-hour written examination in ancient history, but Mahorn certainly passed his first test.

"It was a real challenge," Mahorn said. "I just tried to get him as far away from the basket as I could, take him out of his range. He's got that great hook shot, but I'd rather see him take that than turn around and jam it in my face.

"Kareem is not as physical as some centers. He's more of a finesse player, but he still bangs you around. I just try to play everybody even and take each center as I go along."

One of Mahorn's biggest problems early in the season was his excessive fouling. He fouled out three times and still leads the team by a wide margin, but lately he has had better control of his actions.

Mahorn's aggressiveness already has frustrated several outstanding centers. Boston's Robert Parish was ejected for throwing a punch at him, Artis Gilmore squared off against him in two different games and others have fixed icy glares in his direction.

"I'm not a dirty player," Mahorn insists. "I just think those guys expect to push me around and when I give it back to them, they don't like it."

Respect is what Mahorn is striving for and each time he faces up to the challenges of Parish, Gilmore and Abdul-Jabbar, he moves a step closer to his goal.

Kevin Grevey practiced today for the first time since pulling a groin muscle Dec. 1 against San Antonio. He hopes to play against the Clippers . . . San Diego's victory over Phoenix Tuesday night evened its record at home to 5-5 . . . Jerome Whitehead has replaced Swen Nater, reported to be on the trading block, as the Clippers' starting center . . . Rookie Tom Chambers is second on the Clippers in scoring (behind Freeman Williams) with a 16.6 average.