After the Washington Bullets' 101-97 victory over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday, Celtics forward Xavier McDaniel paid Bullets rookie Tom Gugliotta the ultimate compliment.
"I heard someone say this kid plays a little like Bird," McDaniel said after Gugliotta had 17 points, 12 rebounds and six assists -- and made two clutch baskets in the final minute.
"Well, he hit that last shot [a 20-foot jumper] against us like Bird used to do all the time," McDaniel said. "We'll have to see him play over the course of 82 games, but right now, he shows signs of being a very good player in this league."
It is certainly premature to compare Gugliotta to Larry Bird. As Rookie of the Year 13 years ago, Bird averaged 21.3 points, 10 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
"Googs" has posted impressive statistics in his first seven pro games -- 16.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Across the board, the former North Carolina State star is running ahead of two rookies drafted before him, Minnesota's Christian Laettner and Denver's LaPhonso Ellis.
And Gugliotta, 6 feet 10 and 240 pounds, has held his own against some of the league's premier power forwards -- Charles Oakley of the New York Knicks, Kevin McHale of the Celtics, Larry Johnson of the Charlotte Hornets and Larry Nance of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"It's really a matter of trying to hold your position defensively in the blocks and offering some resistance," Gugliotta said.
His work ethic and quick aptitude for learning has impressed the Bullets coaching staff.
"I like his attitude, toughness and productivity," said Unseld. "I was told he was a finesse player, but he's shown me he's much more of a power player."
Said Bullets assistant Bill Blair, "I didn't know how his leading the ACC in rebounding would translate to the pro game, but he has surprised me with how quick he jumps. He beats a lot of forwards to the ball. He's still got to work on getting his shot off quicker and developing post-up moves. But he's come along faster than anyone could have hoped for."
His fast start is more impressive in view of how most draft "experts" questioned the Bullets' judgment in making Gugliotta the sixth selection in the 1992 NBA lottery.
It is no secret that Washington was looking for a muscular big man after winning only 25 games last season. But once Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning were drafted by Orlando and Charlotte, respectively, the Bullets decided on Gugliotta.
"After O'Neal and Mourning, I liked Tom as much as anyone available in the draft and knew he'd be my preference where we were picking," said Bullets general manager John Nash. "I figured [Ohio State guard] Jim Jackson would be already taken, and that Laettner would also go three or four, as they did.
"It got down to deciding among Maryland's Walt Williams, Stanford's Adam Keefe, Notre Dame's LaPhonso Ellis and USC's Harold Miner. We thought Williams and Miner would become excellent pros, but it was more a matter of needing size, and we decided that Gugliotta, playing alongside Harvey Grant, gave us more flexibility at the two forward slots."
Overcoming skepticism is something Gugliotta has lived with most of his life.
"I started first hearing negative things when Jim Valvano gave me a scholarship to N.C. State," said Gugliotta, a native of Huntington, N.Y.
"A lot of people said Jim did it only as a favor to my father," he said. Frank Gugliotta coached Walt Whitman High in Huntington for 32 years. "But my father would never have told Coach V to take someone to sit on his bench. He was too proud for that and had a lot of faith in me.
"But my freshman year was a real struggle. I don't know how I got through it. First my father passed away, and then I had knee surgery. It was hard keeping my head together. But Coach V really stuck with me and kept saying I had the makings of a big-time player."
Gugliotta became a starter as a sophomore but played in the shadow of the backcourt tandem of Chris Corchiani and Rodney Monroe. His senior year Gugliotta became the focus of the offense and responded by averaging 22.5 points and leading the ACC in rebounding (9.5).
"He's got a very good feel for the game, which is probably due to his father being a coach," said the Bullets' Blair. "Tom is very tough in a quiet kind of way."
Where Gugliotta stands
Here is how Washington Bullets rookie Tom Gugliotta, the sixth choice in the 1992 NBA draft, matches up so far with the two forwards selected ahead of him -- Minnesota's Christian Laettner (No. 3) and Denver's LaPhonso Ellis (No. 5).
.. .. .. .. G.. .. .. .. . Avg. pts.. .. .. Avg. reb.. .. .. Avg. asst..
Gugliotta.. 7.. .. .. .. . 16.4.. .. .. .. 9.6 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 3.8
Laettner.. ..6.. .. .. .. ..16.0.. .. .. .. .8.8 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 2.0
Ellis .. .. .6 .. .. .. ....14.8 .. .. .. .. 8.2 .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 3.2