LANDOVER -- The Washington Bullets performed a quick juggling act with their 12-man roster last night, signing free-agent center Ralph Sampson and activating rookie guard LaBradford Smith, the No. 1 draft pick from Louisville, who spent the first 10 games on the injured list nursing a sore ankle.
To make room, the Bullets waived free-agent forward Albert King and placed veteran forward Tom Hammonds, who had started the last four games, on the injured list.
Hammonds, averaging a career-high 14 points, has been playing with a pulled groin muscle, which he aggravated Monday morning, when he fell heavily in practice.
Sampson, 31, a three-time All-American from Virginia and an All-Star with the Houston Rockets in his early years in the NBA, signed a Bullets contract for the league's $130,000 minimum an hour before last night's game with the Seattle SuperSonics at the Capital Centre.
Sampson contributed one rebound, one assist and two blocked shots in seven minutes. Smith made two free throws in his five minutes.
"The excitement is back," said Sampson. "When I went to Sacramento in 1990, I didn't know what the situation would be, but I had been warned by my friend, Rodney McCray. But now I have a fresh opportunity. Now it's time to go to work."
Sampson has been used sparingly the past two seasons with the Kings, appearing in a total of 51 games. His NBA All-Star performance at Houston declined after a back injury and repeated knee surgery that curtailed his mobility.
In late October, he settled with the Kings on an eight-year contract buyout worth $5 million.
The injury-depleted Bullets, in need of an inside scorer, envision Sampson playing a supporting role to Pervis Ellison and doubling as a center and power forward.
"Ralph is 7-foot-4 and can still shoot the ball," said coach Wes Unseld, who said he has not seen Sampson play in recent years. "He's also a lot stronger than I ever realized."
Sampson, who made the Bullets his favorite team as a high school phenom in Harrisonburg, Va., will get on-the-job training in extra workouts with Unseld in the coming weeks.
VTC "Right now, Ralph is not in NBA shape," said general manager John Nash, "but over the next few weeks we'll get a better feeling for what he can contribute. He's obviously got some rust from his inactivity [the past two seasons]."
Nash hopes Sacramento erred in its judgment of Sampson, the same way the Kings viewed Ellison, whom they traded to the Bullets in June 1990.
"When I was working in Philadelphia, we got another player from the Kings, Derek Smith, who really helped us. So I'm hoping that this form holds true. Expectations are higher for guys with million-dollar contracts, but Ralph isn't in that postion now. We don't expect him to start. We're looking at him as a role player."
King, 31, who won a roster spot with his strong preseason performance, became a victim of the numbers game. The Bullets had a surplus of small forwards -- Harvey Grant, Hammonds, rookie Larry Stewart and swing man Ledell Eackles -- but a shortage of point guards.
That helped Andre Turner, who has been playmaker Michael Adams' backup after being signed as a free agent the day before the season opener, keep his job.
"Albert was as dedicated as any player we had in camp, probably more so," said Nash. "Given the opportunity, I think he proved to himself and a lot of teams that he could still compete in the NBA. Hopefully, he'll get another chance."
King, a former Maryland All-American who played eight seasons in the NBA, appeared in six games for the Bullets for a total of 59 minutes.