Early returns on the NBA's rule changes indicate everything the league figured would happen has happened.

Scoring and field goals--and fouls and free throws--are up. So too are the lengths of games from the end of last season. However, games actually are one minute shorter than games in the early part of last season.

First, the scoring. The average score per game is 98.3 points per team--nearly seven points higher than last season's decade-low total of 91.6.

What seems to have opened up scoring is the new rule that eliminates a defender's ability to make contact with an offensive player above the foul line. Some of the league's leading scorers--Grant Hill, Allen Iverson, Sam Cassell, Ray Allen, Stephon Marbury--are slashers who have exploited the hands-off rule.

There was some thought that increased scoring was directly related to more free throw attempts--an offshoot of players being called for fouls as they adjust to the no-contact rules. That has been true to a point. However, foul shots have increased only from 25.8 last season to 27.4 this season.

In fact, scores are higher because field goal attempts--including three-point tries--are up 4 percent, based on the league's calculations.

Games are taking an average of 2 hours 18 minutes to play. At this point last season they took 2:19. By the end of last season, games were ending in 2:14.

The increased number of fouls and free throws are believed to be the main reasons games are longer now than they were at the end of last season.

The most troublesome changes, according to some coaches and players, are the inconsistency of foul calls and the constant stoppages of play because of the increased number of fouls.

"It seems to be imbalanced at certain times," New Jersey Nets Coach Don Casey said. "Until the rhythm of officiating steadies and we all catch up with the interpretation of things, I think we're going to have to go through the process of more stops that don't allow the continuity of the games."

Cassell on Point

Milwaukee's Cassell, named the NBA's player of the week, said there no longer is such a thing as a "true" point guard. The days of pass-first point guards are gone, said Cassell, who is sixth in the league with a 24.4 scoring average and fourth in the league with 9.2 assists per game.

"I think there's two pure point guards in the league--Jason Kidd and John Stockton," Cassell said. "Everybody else has the mentality that he can score. The pure point guard, that has dissolved."

Five point guards lead their team in scoring and 13 rank among the top three scorers on their teams. Even Kidd (17.4 points per game) is one of the five team scoring leaders. He is averaging just 6.8 assists, which doesn't rank him among the top-10 assist leaders. Stockton is sixth in the NBA in assists with 7.6. He is scoring 13 points per game.

Three of the top scoring point guards--Cassell, Denver's Nick Van Exel (19.3 points) and Seattle's Gary Payton (20)--are averaging more than nine assists per game. Marbury, New Jersey's point guard, is averaging 25.6 points a game but only 4.8 assists, the worst among starters at his position.

"He's probably the best scorer on that team other than Keith Van Horn, so the ball is going to come back to him, usually with the shot clock winding down," Cassell said of Marbury. "He's going to have to look to score."

Nuggets' Stock Rising

Most dangerous, overlooked team in the season's opening weeks? The Denver Nuggets. With second-year center Raef LaFrentz back and guard Ron Mercer on board from Boston, the Nuggets have one of the most talented teams in the league.

Mercer and Van Exel are averaging nearly 40 points a game combined, and LaFrentz and forward Antonio McDyess are blocking shots at a significant clip. Against Atlanta Monday, LaFrentz had five blocks and McDyess four. In the same game, Van Exel scored 23 points and dished out 20 assists. . . . Unsung but important: Boston swingman Adrian Griffin and Orlando backup center John Amaechi. Griffin, last year's CBA player of the year, has been the catalyst for the surprising Celtics. An unmatched hustler, Griffin is averaging 9.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 3.2 steals. Amaechi, who played last season in England, hit the Wizards up for 14 points, then followed that performance with 18 points against the Rockets. Orlando won both games and is playing well above preseason expectations.