Battle shapes up between Chapman, Smith Bullets guards shoot to improve PRO BASKETBALL


SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. -- If there was any question about the potential of the Washington Bullets' shooting guards last season, look no further than a pair of 37-point efforts from that position last season.

In December, Rex Chapman did little wrong in scoring 37 points against Cleveland. And in March, LaBradford Smith scored a career-high 37 points against the Chicago Bulls at the expense of an embarrassed Michael Jordan.

But what coach Wes Unseld got in flashes, he didn't get in season-long consistency from Chapman and Smith at a position vital to a team's success. The two will be the first to admit it, resulting in a summer in which each worked hard to be in a position to battle for increased minutes -- time that may be harder to find if first-round pick Calbert Cheaney proves he can score.

"They're both going at it, and it's refreshing to what it has been in the past," Unseld said yesterday. "I don't think either one has been satisfied [with past performances], and I think that's obvious by the way they've come in this year."

In Chapman's case, the preparation came in the form of more discipline during the off-season.

"I watched what I ate, drank a lot of water and worked out a lot," Chapman said. "I came into camp in shape, so that was the big key. Early in my career I always came in in shape, but getting married and having a child, I probably haven't been coming in in the best shape."

For Smith, the preparation involved controlling a weight problem that has slowed him at times.

"[Unseld] said I needed to work on my strength and to work on keeping my weight down so I could come into camp in decent shape," Smith said. "So I lifted all summer, got stronger and worked a lot on my flexibility. I came in ready."

The 19th pick in the first round of the 1991 draft, Smith was hampered as a rookie by a severely sprained left ankle that kept him out of 27 games. Last season, Smith's scoring average improved from 5.1 to 9.3 points, and he started 29 of the last 30 games. But the performance wasn't consistent enough to hand the 24-year-old former Louisville guard a starting position.

"I was inconsistent, but this year I'm hoping I'll be able to stick the jumper more," Smith said. "Each year I feel I'm improving, so that's a plus."

The same holds true for Chapman, who was taken by Charlotte with the eighth pick of the 1988 draft. He made the all-rookie team that season and has averaged 15.4 points in five years. Many have expected a huge breakthrough from the 26-year-old former Kentucky standout, but the knock on Chapman is that he lacks fire.

"There's this burden of people talking about great talent, but not fulfilling what I'm supposed to do. I'm making a conscious effort to better myself," Chapman said. "At times I've played extremely well, and then there have been times where I've been injured and not played well and people have questioned my desire and intensity."

Those injuries -- a sprained right ankle and lower-back strain -- kept Chapman out of 19 games last season, and a bruised left heel kept him out of 60 games during 1991-92, when he was traded to the Bullets. But Chapman is hoping that an injury-free year and his new dedication will help him improve.

"I think I can score 20 points a game," said Chapman, whose best scoring season was 1989-90, when he averaged 17.5 points. "I'd like to make the all-star team before I finish my career. I can silence a lot of people from that standpoint."

Both players realize the importance of the shooting guard position, and that it's no coincidence that the last time that the Bullets were competitive was when Jeff Malone was averaging 20 points.

"A shooting guard is supposed to be one of the best shooters on the team," Smith said. "We have to go out and take -- and make -- the shots."

NOTES: Chapman, playing for the red team, scored 11 points and Smith, with the blue team, scored eight in a split-squad scrimmage at Shepherd College last night. The red won, 85-82. . . . F Don MacLean led the red, and all scorers, with 21 points (16 in the second half). Tom Gugliotta had 18 and free agent Mitchell Butler 15 on 7-for-9 shooting from the field for the blue. In a battle of centers, Kevin Duckworth scored 10 for the blue, and 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan eight for the red. . . . Cheaney (injured hamstring) did not play.

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