NEW YORK -- Jerrod Mustaf of the New York Knicks has had three coaches in the past six months, five coaches in the last four years.

His first pro coach, Stu Jackson, never said much to Mustaf, just played him precious few minutes at power forward and at center, then benched him for four full quarters in Los Angeles against the Lakers.

Jackson was fired last month after a 7-8 start, and a new stranger, John MacLeod, came to town. MacLeod had a new system, yet another theory about Mustaf. Mustaf would be a 6-foot-10 scoring forward. At age 21, he would even start some games at that position.

"I was hoping for some stability," said Mustaf, who left Maryland after his sophomore year and was the Knicks' No. 1 pick in this year's draft. "But I'll tell you, the University of Maryland got me ready for anything. It seems natural to me now that each year the coach leaves and I get a new one."

As the Knicks arrive in Washington to face the Bullets Friday night, Mustaf has every right to be one confused, embittered ex-Terrapin. Instead, he has drawn from some inner reserve to become a respectable NBA rookie, with a certain fearlessness about life in the lane and on the road.

His lineup status is only as firm, or flimsy, as Kiki Vandeweghe's back muscles. But Mustaf is in there, recently playing between 15 and 30 minutes a night, and he is not embarrassing himself.

"Obviously, he's had a lot of information thrown at him by a lot of different people," MacLeod said. "But he seems to discard what he wants. He's in awe of nobody, and he has great poise for a kid who should be in his junior year of college."

Mustaf arrived at Madison Square Garden last month by an unenviable route. He missed part of training camp because of contract negotiations. He was blamed, indirectly, for the loss of starting small forward Johnny Newman, since Newman was allowed to jump to the Charlotte Hornets in order to free a salary slot for the 17th overall pick in the draft.

Mustaf's new teammates teased him, called him "young fellow" and asked him if it were true that he was really 17 years old. Then the team started losing, the joking stopped, and the coach was gone.

"I was trying to adjust, but I guess I didn't relate well with Stu Jackson," Mustaf said. "I didn't really know what was going on. The head coach didn't sit down with me and tell me my role."

Mustaf says that MacLeod is different, that he came in and talked to him right away. "He's a teacher, and you enjoy being around him," Mustaf said. "The team's more relaxed, and when there's a player who's hot, you go to him."

By now, Mustaf is something of an expert on coaches. He goes down his list, and he has opinions on them all. As Knicks General Manager Al Bianchi said, "This kid can't be conned."

Mustaf starts with Bob Wade, the troubled former coach at Maryland. "I thought he was a caring person," he said. "He cared too much. Maybe that's why he got in trouble there. He stuck his neck out too far for too many people."

On Gary Williams: "Things got better. He was an intense coach, so everybody started jumping."

On Jackson, with tact: "He felt a lot of pressure, I guess."

On MacLeod: "He started talking about how we had to go out and help some poorer people, go into Harlem, and I knew I was going to enjoy being around him. He's about giving."

Mustaf's all-time favorite leader, however, remains the DeMatha High School legend, Morgan Wootten. "He's an ambassador for basketball," Mustaf said. "He gave me a firm base in fundamentals, and in life."

The Knicks keep talking about Mustaf's potential, as they watch him navigate the bumps and potholes of his first season. On Tuesday, at the Garden against the Lakers, he was eaten alive by James Worthy, then benched early for Vandeweghe. Before last night's game in Miami, he was averaging 4.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, and shooting .488 in 15.1 minutes per game.

"If he keeps playing like this, he will be just a good NBA player," MacLeod said. "But if he applies himself, pushes himself like I think he will, Jerrod can have a great career. He has real intelligence. He understands what's going on."

"Adversity makes you mentally stronger," Mustaf said. "That's another thing I learned at Maryland."

Mustaf planned to visit friends on the Maryland campus today. In some ways, they have more in common with him than do his New York teammates. Mustaf turned 21 a week before the Knicks' opening game this season, still an NBA baby but suddenly ready to go out with the guys. He declined the invitations anyway.

"Never did do it, and I figured, 'Why go now?' " he said. There will be other birthdays, other chances to celebrate, other coaches with other ideas. Mustaf will roll with their hunches.