PHOENIX, AUG. 17 -- At a Phoenix Suns minicamp nearly a month ago, Nick Vanos literally was the center of attention.

Although the camp primarily was for free agents trying to make the National Basketball Association team, Vanos and a few other Suns veterans showed up to work on their skills and take advantage of the competition.

For the 7-foot-2, 260-pound Vanos, who had come on strong at the end of last season, this was a chance to continue making a good impression. After two mostly unproductive seasons, Vanos played so well over the final 10 games of the regular season he emerged as the team's No. 1 center.

But an organization already shaken by a drug scandal involving several current and former players was rocked by the news that Vanos was among 154 persons killed in the crash of a Northwest Airlines jetliner in Detroit Sunday night.

Vanos, 24, was killed with his girlfriend, Carolyn Cohen, of Phoenix. They had been visiting Cohen's family in Canton, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, and were scheduled to return here on the ill-fated flight.

"He was kind of a big, rawboned kid who was just learning to put his body and athletic skills together," said Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo, who is vacationing in Carmel, Calif.

Vanos was an all-West Coast Athletic Conference center at Santa Clara and was the Suns' second-round draft choice in 1985. He was injured most of his rookie season and appeared in just 11 games.

After the Suns made center William Bedford the sixth pick in the first round of the 1986 draft, Colangelo recommended that Vanos go to Europe to get more playing time.

Said Colangelo: "We said at the time we drafted him it would take him some time. He was a young man who at first wasn't quite sure of his ability, who wasn't confident of his ability and was somewhat shy. But those closer to him knew another part of Nick. He had his own sense of humor. He was bright and articulate."

Vanos was inactive for most of the 1986-87 season until interim coach Dick Van Arsdale used him extensively over the final 10 games. The Suns went 9-1; Vanos averaged 7.8 points and 8.2 rebounds a game, playing solid defense.

A few weeks ago, new Suns coach John Wetzel said, "He does a lot of things on the floor that maybe don't get noticed."

Of his fast finish, Vanos said: "I was just beginning. I was just trying to show people I could do it over a few weeks span. Now I'd like to do it over the span of a season."y he was."

Colangelo and Wetzel said that as Vanos improved and became more a part of the team, his personality likewise changed.

"The success he enjoyed really gave him a new level of confidence," Colangelo said.

"When he got his chance to play at the end of the year, he was ready and he played well," said Wetzel from Hawaii, where he is on vacation. "He was well-liked and respected by the players because he worked hard at his game and made himself better."

Santa Clara Coach Carroll Williams was on a fishing trip in Wyoming and was informed of Vanos' death by state troopers this afternoon. Dick Davey, a Santa Clara assistant coach who was close to Vanos and his family, said virtually all of Vanos' former teammates had stopped by the basketball office, or called.

"From the standpoint of describing Nick, basketball doesn't even enter into it," said Davey, who had helped recruit Vanos out of Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, Calif. "A lot of times, when you're 7 feet 2 and a local hero, you tend not to be as cooperative or warm as Nick was. He liked people. He was just a good human being. To lose somebody like this who epitomizes the good in people, it's tough."

Vanos had played for the Suns' team in the Southern California pro summer basketball league and was scheduled to participate in Pete Newell's camp for big men at Stanford University next week.