Pervis Ellison was the first pick in the NBA draft last year. Not a first-round pick, THE FIRST pick. The sure shot. Patrick Ewing, Akeem Olajuwon, David Robinson. The big kahuna. And not four years ago, or six years ago or way back when the San Diego Rockets were in the league, LAST YEAR.

The No. 1 pick. Last year.

Sacramento, with the No. 1 pick, chooses Pervis Ellison.

Okay, you're the coach of the Washington Bullets, and you haven't gotten a sniff of a No. 1 pick since bell-bottoms, and your general manager, who's been on the job since, oh, maybe 11 o'clock that morning, calls you and says, "I've talked to Sacramento and Pervis Ellison is available."

After one season. After only 34 games actually, because he was injured, the Kings are willing to trade him.


So you say:

a) "What the heck is wrong with him?"

b) "What the heck is wrong with him?"

c) "Seriously, John, what the heck is wrong with him?"

d) All of the above.

Which is exactly what an understandably skeptical Wes Unseld said when John Nash told him Sacramento was willing to trade Ellison.

Nash certainly didn't begrudge Unseld's incredulity; he was dubious too. "Why would they be willing to do this so quickly?" Nash wondered as Sacramento tossed Ellison's name on the table. The top pick in the whole NBA isn't traded the next year. Not even the colossal mistakes, the baying dogs. Not Ralph. Not LaRue Martin. Not in one year. Not for a shooting guard.

So the Bullets make the deal for Jeff Malone, which is even more bizarre in that Malone is a shooting guard; granted, he's a special one, 22 points a game, game after game for the last five seasons, guaranteed. But the easiest position to fill in the NBA is the off guard. Ellison is 6-foot-10. "These days, to acquire a talented big man for a guard is unusual," Nash said somewhat anxiously, not yet knowing whether he's the fleecer or fleecee. "A year ago Pervis Ellison was one of the premier players in amateur basketball. It wouldn't have been possible to trade Jeff Malone for him."

What the heck is wrong with Pervis Ellison?

(Before we tackle that, let's move to the Sacramento Kings, who took Malone and shipped him to Utah for Eric Leckner and Bobby Hansen. Who makes this deal? Eric Leckner is a wall unit with legs. What exactly are they trying to build in Sacramento, the best CBA team money can buy?)

Okay, is it a good deal for the Bullets?

Unless Ellison shows up here in a full body cast it is.

("I'll have spies at the airport," Unseld promised. "If he's in a cast, I'm going on vacation.")

Malone will turn 29 this week. The Bullets lost with him, and they can lose without him. Ellison is 23. You gain six years and six inches in the deal. (How many more years do you want to hear, "And starting for the Bullets at center is Charles Jones"?)

There are legitimate questions about Ellison. He was great as a freshman at Louisville; you'll recall his 25 points, 11 rebounds against Duke in the NCAA finals. But he hardly improved thereafter. He appeared to play soft, and often distracted, and was said to avoid the weight room the way some players avoid the library. "What we have heard is that perhaps he's not as self-motivated as he should be," Nash said. Unseld acknowledged the same concerns, although he said his reports -- some from Tennessee's Wade Houston, who was an assistant at Louisville when Ellison was there -- indicated Ellison "would do whatever it takes."

Unseld liked Ellison in college. So much, that had the Bullets been able to trade up last year, he'd have lobbied to take Ellison over Danny Ferry. (We can assume Bob Ferry would have been firmly on the other side.) "He's got a tremendous upside," Unseld said, willing to gamble that Sacramento's surprising impatience with Ellison is based on Dick Motta's peculiar philosophy.

"We don't know much about Pervis Ellison," said one NBA scout. "But we know for a fact that Dick Motta doesn't want him. He dumped him."

Ellison was Bill Russell's pick. Russell is gone. Motta feels no allegiance to anything Russell did. Motta's favorite offense is forward-oriented, like the one he fashioned with Chet Walker and Bob Love with the Bulls in the 1960s. At Sacramento, he has Waymon Tisdale and Antoine Carr. Motta likes a very physical center. Ellison is thin. Leckner may wind up as Motta's Tom Boerwinkle -- or his Wes Unseld.

"The NBA still doesn't know who Pervis Ellison is," the scout said. "He was the No. 1 pick -- admittedly you may want to put an asterisk there, because he was Bill Russell's pick -- and he's completely unproven either way. He blocks shots. He passes well. He's a good defender and a decent shooter. If he's an active player, maybe the Bullets have a smaller David Robinson. But the gamble is, how brittle is he mentally and physically? How big is his heart?"

I like the trade. Of course I like the trade. The Bullets just got last year's No. 1 overall pick. Should they have held out for Ellison and Vinny Del Negro? I'm a bad judge, though. I like all the Bullets' trades on and about Draft Day. Those are the Bullets' best days, their days of miracle and wonder. I liked when they got Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson. For who? For Mel Turpin. And they got Turpin back, didn't they -- and he hadn't missed a meal. I liked when they got Dan Roundfield. And Moses Malone. And Jay Vincent. I much preferred the trades to them drafting Kenny Green and Muggsy Bogues.

It's good to see that John Nash will take a chance on what's behind Curtain No. 3. Jeff Malone's points will be missed, but Ledell Eackles can light it up, as can John Williams (provided he loses weight; rumor says Williams is drifting somewhere between George Foreman and a float in the Macy's parade). What's different about this trade is the Bullets went for a young man. Ferry was obliged to go for veterans. He was looking to finish the puzzle. Nash and Unseld are just trying to put a significant piece on the board.