SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Nothing can gladden a coach's heart more in training camp than finding keen competition at a number of positions.
That is why usually stoic Washington Bullets coach Wes Unseld can almost be caught smiling during the first week of practice at Shepherd College. For the first time in four years, he can observe players engaged in legitimate battles at the two guard and forward spots.
Only center Pervis Ellison is guaranteed a starting job. But even here Unseld is experimenting with a big lineup featuring a bulked-up 6-foot-11 Greg Foster in the middle and Ellison at power forward, his most natural position.
But the liveliest competition is in the backcourt.
"For a change, it's a real healthy situation," said assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who spends most of his time working with the guards. "Hopefully, it will bring out the best in everyone."
Michael Adams, the Bullets' lone All-Star choice last season, is being tested by rookie Brent Price, who is auditioning for both backcourt positions.
Price's reputation as an excellent shooter has been strengthened in the early scrimmages, but the former Oklahoma star also has impressed the coaching staff with his ball-handling and passing ability.
Before camp opened, it was assumed Rex Chapman, who was obtained from Charlotte last February but played in only one game for Washington because of foot problems, would inherit the shooting-guard role.
But Chapman is being pushed by second-year guard LaBradford Smith, whose rookie season was limited to 48 games while nursing a foot he injured before training camp.
Now a trimmed-down Smith is running free of pain, aggressively attacking the basket and showing a more consistent outside jumper.
"LaBradford's gotten off to a real good start," said Bzdelik. "For the first time, he's healthy and showing us why he was our first-round pick last year. With his foot problems, he just couldn't explode off the dribble and it also bothered his jump shot. Now he seems to have his whole game together."
The recent frontcourt additions general manager John Nash made through trades should give Unseld a lot more flexibility this season.
"A month ago, we were looking at Bernard King and Tom Gugliotta as our two small forwards," said Nash. "Now we've added Buck Johnson and Don MacLean to the mix, and King's absence [knee] won't be so heavily felt."
Unseld regards most of his frontcourt veterans as interchangeable, leading to lively competition among Harvey Grant, Larry Stewart and Johnson for starting jobs. The competition can only grow more intense when Gugliotta and MacLean, a pair of first-round draft choices, report to camp.
Although they are listed at 6-10, Gugliotta and MacLean are regarded as small forwards with outside shooting as their principal assets.
"I won't know how they'll fit in until I get a chance to observe them for a while," said Unseld.
But Unseld must be pleased with Stewart's progress. The Coppin State alumnus was a major surprise as a free agent last season, when frontcourt injuries made him an instant starter and he earned second-team NBA rookie honors.
A solid rebounder who has a knack for getting open on offense, Stewart worked diligently in the off-season to improve his outside touch.
Johnson, a four-year starter with the Houston Rockets before losing his job to Matt Bullard last winter, has looked comfortable in the Bullets' open-court style. The 6-7 forward can best use his speed and agility in an up-tempo transition game.