Washington Bullets power forward Terry Catledge has rarely needed any outside impetus to work hard. Relatively undersized for his position at 6 feet 8, this third-year NBA professional compensates by playing recklessly, often hurtling into the fray to retrieve a rebound or make his way to the basket.

Through the first few days of training camp at Fort Meade, it has been obvious that the intensity is still present. In each of the Bullets' few scrimmages, his brutish play has reminded teammates why it's never been any fun to practice against him. It's a feeling that he hopes to impart to opponents on a regular basis this season.

"I think I could be a big key to the Washington Bullets this season," he said after yesterday's morning workout. "I feel I can just go in and play now, I'm more comfortable out there."

He knows he is fortunate to be playing. On Aug. 2, he was a passenger in a one-vehicle crash in Mississippi that killed one of his best friends, Ricky Cooper.

"I definitely feel blessed," Catledge said. "Looking at the truck, we all could have been killed easily. It just might have been Ricky's turn, but I guess it happened for a reason."

At the time, it was thought Catledge might have suffered a hairline fracture of the neck. The diagnosis was amended, though, to a severe bruise. Soon after, he dedicated his 1987-88 season to Cooper.

"It runs through my mind every day but I try not to think about it every second," Catledge said. "I do think about it but I just try and deal with it in my own way."

Although he started in 77 of his 78 games last season with the Bullets, he was barely more than a rookie. A first-round draft choice of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1985, he played sparingly until the second half of the 1985-86 season. During the playoffs, he played a major role in eliminating Washington, scoring a career playoff-high 27 points in the fifth and deciding game.

That performance led the Bullets to insist he be included in the June 1986 trade that brought them center Moses Malone. Adapting to his second system in two years in the NBA, Catledge doubled his playing time and rebound totals from the previous season and increased his scoring from 7.7 points to 13.1.

He set career highs with 32 points against Milwaukee and 20 rebounds against the Los Angeles Lakers. He was one of the Bullets' few bright spots, averaging 18 points and eight rebounds, as they were swept in three games by Detroit in the first round of the 1987 playoffs.

"When we went over our season this spring, we realized that Terry was probably our most consistent player," said Coach Kevin Loughery. "He came out as well as anybody in the grading. His size is a factor against him but someone's going to have to beat him out for him not to play."

Catledge isn't about to let that happen. In his mind, he's ready to establish himself firmly both on the Bullets and in the NBA.

"When the playoffs started last year, I knew that they were going to key on Moses and Jeff {Malone, the team's all-star guard} and that someone else was going to have to help them out," he said. "In the first game I was aggressive offensively and they ran plays for me.

"I feel I can do the same thing this year. Last season I'd get the ball and make a move and {the coaches} would say, 'Bad shot.' This season I think they feel more confortable with letting me into the offense. Last season I was only getting 26-28 minutes a game and I think I can do more if I get the kind of minutes that Jeff and Mo were getting."

Thus, another evidence of a growing assertiveness that the soft-spoken Catledge has found off the court. After Game 2 of last season's playoff debacle, Moses Malone criticized his teammates for not playing hard, but Catledge dissented.

"I was working hard in the series," he said. "I know that I'll always play hard. I know that Moses will do the same thing. I felt that he was playing hard himself, he was just having a bad series."

Bullets Notes:

General Manager Bob Ferry reported no progress in negotiations with free-agent veterans Darwin Cook, Frank Johnson and Charles Jones or in trade talks. "Over the past three years we've probably made more trades than anyone in history," he said. "We can only do something when we're able to do it."