It was like a film off its sprocket by one hole. The image didn't quite jibe with reality. But there stood John Williams, on the basketball court with the other Washington Bullets at Bowie State University, after being away 381 days.

Williams's return to practice yesterday after a year plus two weeks involved, by order of the Bullets' team physicians, no full-court contact. He's still going to rehabilitation three times a week for his injured knee, and working out twice a day with strength and conditioning coach Dennis Householder. And he will continue to see the nutritionist who's been reworking his eating patterns.

His return to NBA game action is at least three weeks away. Yesterday he spent about an hour going through running, shooting and agility drills. But the benefits to the Bullets of finally seeing Williams on the floor had little to do with what he actually did there.

"This morning, when I got up, I was feeling real good," he said at an impromptu news conference after a practice the Bullets used to prep for tonight's game at Indiana.

"The adrenaline was flowing. Then when I got here, I was kind of nervous at first. I had the jitters. But Darrell Walker came over to me and said, 'Just take your time. And welcome back.' I really appreciated him . . . giving me some confidence."

Williams wore the thick knee brace he will have to use for the foreseeable future. He said the knee "feels great" and that he needs to lose an additional 15 to 20 pounds to get back to his playing weight of 260, though ideally the Bullets would like him at 245.

"I knew that I would be back," he said. "It was just a matter of time. With me not out there, in the games, people have a tendency to forget about you. So it's time to get back out there again."

The Bullets pronounced his 1990 debut a success, though they raised caution flags about it being very early in his on-court rehabilitation. His program will continue at least through mid-January, when his knee will be reevaluated day by day.

"At first as he was warming up, it appeared as if he might have been taking it a little bit easy," General Manager John Nash said. "But that's natural. I thought once we got into the bread and butter of the workout, he looked fine. But this is Day One. We've got a ways to go."

Said Coach Wes Unseld: "I'm just glad to see him back. I think he was glad to be back, glad to be working out with the guys. . . . It was just drills and little half-court stuff. You can't say anything about it now. I could go out and do some of that stuff. For about 12 seconds."

Williams has kept in touch during his entire ordeal with several teammates, notably Walker, Charles Jones and Harvey Grant, who all live down the block from him in the Maryland suburbs. Yesterday Bernard King, a disciple of stretching and flexibility, and the only Bullet to conquer such a knee injury, gave him some drills to get him back in the habit of making basketball cuts.

"He made some moves, went to the hoop, spun, reversed, used the left hand," Walker said. " . . . John's a big help to me out on the court. I was glad to see him back out there, teasing him, joking with him. He seemed to be very happy to be back. I know he's missed it."

Said Nash: "It's difficult for any athlete to condition himself in the abstract. John's a basketball player. He was having fun. And he was contributing. He's a terrific low-post defender. That's where his size is a plus. He's going to hold his defensive position. He was active and he was aggressive."

This wasn't the first time the recovering Williams had picked up a basketball. During his summer in Los Angeles he played some pickup games at UCLA with assorted pros. And while those games didn't properly replace a rehabilitation regimen, as Williams acknowledged yesterday, they served an important role.

"That kind of gave me some confidence back," he said. "That just let me know that I could still do some of the things I used to do. I wasn't real tentative. I knew I could do it. It was just a matter of getting out there."

While he will continue his rehabilitation, his workouts with the team will be sporadic. Because of the Bullets' schedule, it's likely there won't be another full-team practice until Monday. And for the time being he will not make road trips.

If Williams doesn't play until at least mid-January, as is projected, he will be owed approximately $598,000 in pay that will have been withheld from him until then. He will not receive the money until he plays in a game. His only comment on the matter: "That's all in the past."

Fair enough. On this day, it was proper to look ahead.

"I'm starting to see good results," he said. "It made me think about my career. Don't take it for granted. Because any time, any day, something can happen, and you can lose it. I've put up a hard fight not to lose my career, and I think I'm stepping toward being back out there on the court. It's a major step. I just have to hang in there."