BOWIE -- Morgan State basketball coach Michael Holmes, a visitor to the Washington Bullets mini-camp at Bowie State, nodded approvingly after watching Rex Chapman thread a pass through two defenders to find an open man for a layup.
"You see a lot of kids trying out here who had big reputations in college," said Holmes, "but they really don't understand the game. They can run, jump and shoot, but they lack the fundamentals. But Rex has got a real feel for things. He can play this game."
Bullets general manager John Nash and coach Wes Unseld shared the same opinion of Chapman, leading to his acquisition from the Charlotte Hornets last February in exchange for forward Tom Hammonds.
They say they never doubted the former Kentucky star could play. But they wondered when and if he would do just that in a Bullets uniform.
As things developed last season, a lingering heel injury kept Chapmansidelined for 30 games, delaying his Bullets debut until the season finale in Philadelphia on April 18.
Yesterday, the competition in the mini-camp, composed mainly of rookie free agents and NBA dropouts, hardly resembled Charles Barkley and Hersey Hawkins, but the almost effortless way Chapman dominated the scrimmage had to relieve the Bullets' anxiety.
"The heel feels great," said Chapman, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard. "Now, I don't even think about it. I just play."
Chapman, a four-year veteran, had more than five months last season to think after tearing his left heel in a Hornets game in Chicago in early December.
"It was real frustrating sitting on the bench the last three months and watching the Bullets struggle," he said. "But management was extremely patient with me. It could have been a really tough situation, but no one pressured me to play hurt."
But the Bullets, who lost Bernard King and Mark Alarie for the entire 1991-92 season after the two forwards underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last summer, wanted to guard against a similar situation with Chapman.
If it was determined the heel would not respond to treatment, they wanted their guard of the future to undergo immediate surgery after the season ended.
Chapman returned to his native Kentucky and joined a group of UK graduates on a barnstorming tour trough the state, playing nine exhibition games in two weeks. He survived the ordeal without reinjuring his heel and also gained peace of mind.
"The best thing is that I escaped surgery," he said. "I don't care how minor an operation is supposed to be. A lot of athletes are never the same after they get cut."
Chapman's offensive statistics as a starter in his first three full seasons in Charlotte were more than respectable, 16.7 points a game. But constant changes in the front office and in the coaching ranks and the drafting of Illinois guard Kendall Gill in 1990 made Chapman suddenly dispensable to the Hornets.
"I was in a stagnant situation in Charlotte," he said. "It was a short marriage that didn't work. I think everyone needed a change in atmosphere, and going to Washington was an exciting change for me."
"Rex can do a lot for us offensively," said Nash. "He's a better passer than I was led to believe, and he has great range on his shot. All he has to do is stay healthy to be a real plus."
NOTES: There was no movement yesterday on the contract negotiations with first-round draft pick Tom Gugliotta's agent, Richard Howell. He has only two more days to accept the current five-year offer of $10.725 million before the Bullets are forced to match the Knicks' $17 million offer sheet to forward Harvey Grant. That would leave only $500,000 in the team salary cap for Gugliotta.