Ex-Terp Mustaf convinced playing against best is best for him


NEW YORK -- Early yesterday he whispered, "By halftime, I'll know something." But the clock struck nine without Jerrod Mustaf turning into a Timberwolf or any other NBA pumpkin. He remained a New York Knick as the trading deadline passed, and a frustrated one at that.

"We just got our butts kicked," he whispered again after the Knicks' lethargic 120-101 loss to Seattle at Madison Square Garden last night. "I can't be at ease."

Mustaf reached season-highs in points (13) and rebounds (11), but who noticed? The crowd of 12,515 interrupted its booing only to serenade Knicks general manager Al Bianchi with a fourth-quarter chant of "Al Must Go!"

Not even the courtside appearances of Prince Charming (M.C. Hammer) and Wince Charming (Eddie Murray) could improve the collective mood. Afterward, coach John MacLeod said, "We've got to jack it up about 500 percent. They sprinted down the floor. We jogged."

Is this any place for a 21-year-old like Mustaf, who would only be a junior at Maryland if he hadn't entered the NBA draft? Midway through a tumultuous rookie season, with the Knicks preparing to visit the Bullets tomorrow night, the answer is yes.

"I'm playing against the best players in the world, all the time," says Mustaf, who is averaging 13.4 minutes, 4.3 points and 2.7 rebounds. "I practice against the best center in the NBA [Patrick Ewing] every day. You're around these people, you learn the game."

Or, as his father Shaar, a resident of Greenbelt, puts it, "There has not been any second thoughts about the decision. We thought it was a great decision. There's an old saying, 'Why work for nothing when you can get paid for it?' It's common sense. It's the American way."

Mustaf, the second youngest player in the league behind Seattle's Shawn Kemp, is getting paid nicely -- $565,000 in the first year of a four-year, $2.24 million contract. But make no mistake, his transition has not been easy. MacLeod freely admits, "He's been up and down."

That, of course, is exactly what the Knicks expected, but for Mustaf, the worst seems over. He became more diligent at practice after MacLeod assailed his work habits a month ago. He also cleared the air with management after claiming to be "insulted" by his lack of playing time.

Last but not least, he didn't get traded. The most persistent rumor had him going to Minnesota for swingman Tony Campbell, but the Knicks refrained from making any deals despite leading the Bullets by only half a game for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

At times last night, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Mustaf showed signs of developing into a solid power forward who can run the floor and maneuver inside. He played 30 minutes and helped spark the Knicks' only run, when they cut a 16-point deficit to three in the second quarter.

"I like the way he's come back," MacLeod says. "He's working at it."

The unanswered question is whether Mustaf would have been better off staying in college, refining his skills and becoming a lottery pick in 1992. But the choice was not so simple at Maryland, where he would have played his final two years without any hope of competing in the NCAA tournament.

Those burned by the NCAA sanctions at College Park each had to look out for No. 1. Walt Williams elected to stay; Mustaf, from the same class, did not. Instead, he strongly considered sitting out a year and transferring to Virginia or Georgia Tech.

He waited until the deadline for declaring hardship, then finally settled on the draft. The Knicks made him the 17th overall pick, and initially there was talk he'd play some small forward. It's a sign of the times in New York that lately Mustaf has backed up Ewing at center.

His future is at power forward, but Mustaf must learn to play big. He arrives at practice 30 minutes early and stays 20 minutes late, trying to develop better post-up moves and a righthanded hook shot. "He's got to be more aggressive," says assistant coach Paul Silas, no stranger to that style. "But his upside is tremendous."

So many things could have gone wrong if he had stayed at Maryland, not the least of which was serious injury. Mustaf still plans to complete his degree in political science, and his father says, "I'll hold him to it." But as his NBA education continues, his formal education can wait.

He is confident and poised, "more like a 25- or 30-year-old man rather than 21," according to teammate Gerald Wilkins. But now he's learning the routine as well. "It's a business," he says. "You can't have thin skin. You can't be a weak person. It's a league for men."

A league for Jerrod Mustaf.

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