When Jeff Ruland took off for Barcelona last summer instead of signing with the Bullets, the reaction in Washington was a huge yawn.

Although he had led little Iona to a 29-5 record and averaged 20.8 points in three years, pro scouts didn't consider the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder a great prospect.

In this era when every team wants another big man, Ruland was not selected until the second round of the draft. He was picked by Golden State, which had taken 7-foot Joe Barry Carroll first.

The Warriors didn't even wait until the drafting was completed before dealing Ruland to the Bullets for a second-round pick in '81.

Even after securing the rights to Ruland, General Manager Bob Ferry of the Bullets drafted Rick Mahorn, a little-known center from Hampton (Va.) Institute. With Wes Unseld and Mitch Kupchak returning, Ruland figured he could get more playing time in Spain, and Ferry agreed.

Now, after only 18 games of his rookie season, Ruland could turn out to be one of the biggest steals the Bullets ever made. Since starting to play on a regular rotation, he has become one of the team's most dependable members.

"Jeff really is working out well," Coach Gene Shue said today after his team worked out for Friday night's game with San Diego (10:35, WTOP-1500). "A lot of people were skeptical about him because he doesn't give the appearence of being quick. But he is deceptive. He has an excellent first move."

In his last seven games, Ruland is averaging 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds and playing about 24 minutes a game, usually the second and fourth quarters. Although not a great leaper, he leads the Bullets by a wide margin in offensive rebounding with 55. Mahorn has 38.

Pat Riley, the new coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, was impressed with Ruland's 14 points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes of the Bullets' 102-98 loss Tuesday in Los Angeles.

"I like the way he plays," Riley said. "He's street smart; you can see that. He knows how to play the game. Some guys come into this league and have no idea how to play, but he knows. It's that New York upbringing, I guess."

After growing up on Long Island, Ruland declined several offers to play at major schools. He chose Iona in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he led the nation's freshmen in scoring with a 22.3 average. As a sophomore, he led the NCAA in shooting percentage (.672). In his junior year, he was one of six players to average 20 points, 10 rebounds and shoot better than 50 percent.

"Jeff was probably ready for the NBA last season," Ferry said during training camp. "But we still had Wes and had signed Ricky and there was no way to get enough playing time for two rookie centers. Going to Spain was the best thing that happened to Jeff."

"I didn't like it," Ruland said, flashing his frequent grin. "I didn't like the food and I didn't really care for the fans. The games were all right, but there was not much free time and nothing to do in between."

Once the season ended, Ruland came back and quickly signed with the Bullets. Playing with several of his current teammates in the Urban Coalition League last summer, Ruland led the team in scoring with a 23.4 average.

Slowed by a sprained ankle, Ruland fell behind in training camp. But starting with a 23-point performance Nov. 24 against Golden State, he has been one of the team's most consistent performers.