LOS ANGELES -- Bernard King was leaving a recent morning shoot-around, going to breakfast. He had gotten halfway across the hallway when he quickly shifted direction.

"I'll show you a shortcut," he said.

Sure enough, he wound up a few paces ahead of where he would have come out. There was an uninitiated soul with him who wondered why all the fuss for a couple of steps.

Because it adds up. By saving 25 feet of walking a game, he saves more than 2,000 feet of pounding a year. That's better served for slashes to the basket. And quick posts. And jumpers. And the rest of the Bernard King repertoire, an arsenal that has brought King, who turned 34 Tuesday, back from the dread of the NBA: torn anterior cruciate ligament.

His renaissance with the Washington Bullets has taken him to the league scoring lead much of this early season and still in the top four at 28.6 points per game. He doesn't have the manic offensive system of Denver's Orlando Woolridge, the brute force of Charles Barkley or the levitational skills of Michael Jordan. He has himself, and that's never let him down on the court.

And King has been rewarded for his good works with a new two-year, $5 million extension on his contract, making him one of the higher-paid forwards in the game, the result of a couple of quiet negotiating sessions with Bullets owner Abe Pollin.

In the local community, whether it's buying $50,000 worth of season tickets for "King's Corner" at Capital Centre, or attending a forum on world hunger with former Bullet Manute Bol, or coming down from New Jersey over the summer to encourage 15,000 Prince George's County students to read, King has established roots. It's likely he'll spend the rest of his career with the Bullets.

"He has an unbelievable ability to concentrate when he's playing a game, but also when he's working out," said Ernie Grunfeld, who just moved from the New York Knicks' bench as an assistant coach to be their director of administration. He also is one of King's best friends, dating from their days as New York City schoolboy stars and then as teammates at the University of Tennessee.

"When he had to rehab he was by himself," Grunfeld said. "He always knew he would come back. He wanted to be the first player ever to come back and be close to that same player he was."

It involved a self-imposed two-year disappearance from the Knicks to rehabilitate his right knee. And since he's come to Washington, it's meant an offseason regimen that, last summer, had him going 6 1/2 hours a day four days a week.

"There's certain sacrifices you make to perform your job at a certain level that makes you happy," King said last week during an interview that focused on his return to top form. "It's what I want. Quite frankly, the level of my program in terms of workload was even at a higher level than it is now, when I was with the Knicks.

"That was because I wasn't injured at that time and I was able to do more. Since I've been with Washington, and it shows in my play, each offseason I've been physically able to do more. My knee has actually gotten stronger each year. As a result, I've been able to take my conditioning up to another level. The performance shows."

"I didn't think he would come back to this level," said Boston's Kevin McHale. "I had major foot surgery {in 1987} and, coming back, it was even harder then, because you lose a little bit of something. I don't care what anybody says. You've got guys going in there with big knives and saws." Extension and the Jumper

Until King signed the two-year extension Nov. 27, some thought he might be near the end of his Washington days. There were trade rumors, though Bullets people say privately there was nothing serious.

And since the Bullets had declined to extend his contract during the offseason, there was concern that King, as an unrestricted free agent, would take a walk at the end of the season.

"I thought that was a good possibility," King said. "Had that occurred I was fully ready to adjust to that. That's part of the business. . . . But by the same token I knew I played a very important part on this team in terms of my ability to play the game, and the leadership I provide for some of the younger players, and the relationship I had with Wes {Unseld} in terms of being coachable."

The reality was that King makes $1.6 million this season, which no contender can fit under its salary cap. He knew that.

"I wouldn't have gone to a very good team had I become a free agent," he said. "I wouldn't have been able to play with a championship-quality team . . . they just would not have been able to accommodate me.

"So what sort of team would I have wound up on? A team that's probably no different from this one, from the standpoint of young players and an organization that has been rebuilding. So why make that change?"

King came out firing this season, scoring 30 points or more in nine of Washington's first 12 games. This was while the Bullets' offense frequently sputtered or broke down completely.

"I know how it is when teams come at you, double- and triple-team you," said Jordan, winner of the last four scoring titles, "trying to make someone else do some scoring. It's in his best interest to have someone else step up and give him some of that help, but at the same time he's got to maintain and be as consistent as possible, to know that the team can rely on him at any point in time."

And so King has, even in the face of double teams. Yet he still comes up with big spurts -- 12 points in the fourth quarter at Golden State, 12 in the third at Sacramento -- the base of which is an improved jump shot that opens up his slashing and cutting.

The improvement came this summer, as part of King's myriad running and shooting drills in New Jersey this summer with his brother Albert, now in the Continental Basketball Association after taking part in the Bullets' minicamp.

"I said, 'Albert, show me how to shoot a jump shot properly,' " King said. "I've always worked on my jump shot but he's always been a very good jump-shooter. He's got picture-perfect form. I went back to doing that with him, then I went back to watching a tape when I was with the Knicks and we played in Washington.

"I had gotten 43 points. The points were irrelevant. It was how I got them. In the second half it was all curls, shooting the jump shot. What I found was what I went away from . . . the thing that helped me most in the low post was shooting very quickly. My release. I've incorporated that this year into my jump shot." The Remaking of a Knee

It was February 1985. Even then, as Bernard King lay in a hospital awaiting the operation of his life, he had to prepare. Days earlier, he had gone down against the Kansas City Kings. And he had just a couple of days to decide what he was going to do. His choices for a knee operation were three: a patella tendon procedure, an artificial graft or a new form of reconstruction being used by the Knicks' team physician, Norman Scott.

The Knicks flew in six of the top orthopedic physicians in the country. King had a yellow pad and tape recorder with him. He had questions.

"I talked to every player that ever tore his anterior cruciate ligament," King said. "I talked to Mitch Kupchak. I talked to Campy Russell. I talked to Toby Knight. I talked to everyone I knew. To see how they handled it. How did they make their decision? What did they do to rebound from it? That information helped me."

He chose Scott, whose new approach involved taking a band of ligaments that extend from the hip to the knee joint, instead of the patella (kneecap) tendon, whose removal might lead to decreased blood flow or tendinitis.

"By removing {the band} from the position it's in you're not losing a lot," King said. "He creates a fracture alongside the knee joint that the band is inserted into the bone. He fractures that area. He lifts the bone with the band, so as a result you still have the blood supply . . ."

He pauses. "Then he brings that around to the side of your knee and he screws that down. That is supposed to function for all intents and purposes as your anterior cruciate ligament."

It was, King says, a marriage of the right procedure by the right doctor with the right player at the right time. But precious few believed.

He learned to swim -- his therapist, Dania Sweitzer, taught him. He stayed away from things. He played games in his head. He worked the exercise bike and the rower. He watched tape of a player he put at the time at a level lower than a high-schooler -- himself.

"I had to slow it down to very slow speed," he said. "And I watched one move. And then every day I would go to the gym and try that move again, with my therapist. Every day when I got to that point of being in the gymnasium, I was moving at a fraction of the speed that I moved in the game. But I was implementing the move again, to reintroduce it to me physically and mentally. It became like piecing a puzzle back together, so to speak." The Work Ethic, Plus

Bernard King is driving down the left side of the court. He's going in. You can tell. He makes contact with a Golden State Warrior. Official Ronnie Garretson calls a charge. King is vehement. Then Garretson says something. King goes berserk. Later, people in Washington's huddle say King claims Garretson cursed him.

What you did hear King say on the floor is, "That's not what this game is about!" This game. It's a very precious thing to him, since the nights he shot on the courts outside his Brooklyn housing project. The lights on the court, you understand, were out.

Reason? It created the same condition under which King can now shoot at the basket without seeing it -- which, if you think of it, is what happens when a big guy is blocking the way. Always, Bernard King has been preparing for this, and one knee injury wasn't going to stand in his way. He's been on ESPN and the "Today" show. He wonders if people don't realize he's been playing basketball full time again for three years now. How he's always had this ethic.

"I saw my father every day, how he worked hard," King said. "He never gave anything less than his best. He worked for the Housing Authority. His job was to sweep floors and to clean up, and he went out there seven days a week to take care of us and provide for us."

Tonight, he will start his 139th straight game: fourth-longest streak in the league, behind Houston's Otis Thorpe, Utah's Mark Eaton and Portland's Jerome Kersey.

The Bullets got here Friday, with a couple of days off before playing the Lakers. Some of them went to a restaurant. Some went out to clubs.

Bernard King went to UCLA to work out.