It's becoming increasingly obvious that Jeff Malone is a true member of the Washington Bullets.
On a team that regularly has won games it should have lost and lost games it should have won, the second-year guard is doing his part to add to the wackiness.
The last two weeks have been the finest in his young career. In his last five games, Malone has averaged 33 points. His low game during that stretch has been 21 points, and along the way there have been career highs in total points (40 against Portland March 6) and field goals (16 against Chicago March 11).
Although he has established himself as one of the best jump shooters in the league, he's been losing his reputation as one of the league's best at the foul line.
When his long-range success began, he was eighth in the NBA in free throw percentage. Today, although he's still shooting 84 percent from the line, he's out of the top 10, because of 75 percent shooting (33 of 43) the last five games.
Although that would be more than sufficient for many players, to him 75 percent is hideous. Twice over the last week he's announced that a long streak of consecutive successes was about to begin. Twice he began those streaks by missing his first free throw of the night.
It's enough to make a fellow forget about 23-footers. "I'm just not going to the line with confidence right now," he said. "I'm not concentrating enough. The ball doesn't feel right; but I'll get it back."
Mind you, he is talking about his lack of confidence in the same breath that he says, in describing his scoring streak, "It's like it's not hard to get 30 (points).
"It seems like things are coming easy. I can feel it when I step out on the court that it's going to be a good night. Gene (Bullets Coach Shue) is letting me shoot. which makes me feel good; it doesn't take much room for me to get my shot off."
Malone has been scoring despite Washington's lack of a consistent inside game. It's a tribute to the team's offensive execution that the Mississippi State grad -- a marked man at this point by the opposition -- still has been able to get off his fair share of shots.
His run also shows how an individual on a basketball team is more often than not no greater than the sum of its parts. Without injured center Jeff Ruland to provide inside rebounding to start the Bullets' fast break, the team's running game has often been triggered by newcomer Charles Jones' blocked shots.
Gus Williams, Malone's running mate at guard, often has been the beneficiary of that defense, going the length of the court for layups. When the the team is in a half-court offense, Williams has become more conscious of taking the ball to the basket, drawing defenders to him, then passing the ball back out.
Usually that means Malone. "It's just a lot easier when the lanes are filled and we're running, because there are more options available," Williams said. "It definitely helps that Jeff is a threat from anywhere. We've been playing pretty well together recently; I hope that we keep getting better."
Malone feels that he can continue to do his part, despite reaching the point where the expectations for 30-point nights will become the rule and not the exception. It's being able to deliver consistently under that burden that makes a player a superstar.
"I hear the fans before the games now," he said. "They'll walk by and yell, 'Hey Malone, get 30 or 35 tonight.' I can deal with things like that. The way I'm going now, I think I can score at least 25 every night out, but I know it's not always going to be like that. The important thing is winning. If I only score 18 points and we win, then it was a good night."
The low point of his five-game streak came Wednesday in East Rutherford, N.J., in a 114-109 loss to the Nets. Even then he scored 21 points, but not until after struggling through a one-for-eight debacle from the field in the first half.
The slow start was odd in that it came against Otis Birdsong, a player whose game Malone, when younger, tried to emulate. Birdsong has consistently scored 20 or more, but there's another part of the New Jersey guard's game that Malone would be hesitant to pick up on.
That would be free throws. Although he shoots over 50 percent from the field, mostly from long range, Birdsong is atrocious at the line, making 63 percent. "I was talking to him about that before we played them that last time," Malone said. "He asked me what he should do about it. I told him to watch me."
Whereupon the student-turned-teacher went out and missed three of his first four foul shots.