THE BULLETS' MIDDLEMAN Duckworth has filled big order at center, but at high price

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As the final seconds ticked off and the Washington Bullets clung to a one-point lead over the Milwaukee Bucks, the ball wound up in the hands of Kevin Duckworth.

First, there was a bump from Bucks center Frank Brickowski, guarding the eight feet between Duckworth and the basket, then another bump and another. But Duckworth let fly with 11.2 seconds left in the game, the ball found the bottom of the net and Washington had a victory.

Insignificant? Sure, the shot occurred in Thursday's preseason game, which also was Washington's first preseason win.

But, at the same time, there was this: The Bullets went to the low post late in a game -- an option they haven't been comfortable with during the past five years.

And that's why Duckworth, 7 feet, 280 pounds (his listed weight, though he looks heavier), is in a Bullets uniform today, acquired in a deal that sent Harvey Grant, Washington's top scorer last season, to the Portland Trail Blazers. On the surface, it might seem crazy to trade your top scorer for a player who, at season's end, wasn't even a starter.

But if Duckworth is looking for more minutes, he'll have no problems with the Bullets, who haven't had an effective center since Moses Malone left after the 1987-88 season.

"We needed an inside presence -- we needed a presence, period," Washington coach Wes Unseld said before the start of training camp. "Kevin Duckworth is a scorer. I thought we lost a lot of games last year because of our inability to go down low. We need someone low to draw some attention away from our jump shooters. [Duckworth] can do that.

"Is Kevin a presence? A lot of people around the league will say no," Unseld added. "I've talked to Kevin, and he seems to think he can be. So I will push him to do just that."

Playing just over 29 minutes a game in the preseason, Duckworth is averaging 10.8 points (shooting 42.5 percent from the field) and 6.1 rebounds in eight games. Statistically, it hasn't been a stellar performance, although Duckworth did save his best for the final preseason game, when he scored 20 in a win over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday.

But the lights go on for real Friday night, when the Bullets open the season in Philadelphia. And it will be then when the Bullets start measuring the value they received in the trade.

"Other people might look at it and say, 'He can't do anything,' but when it comes to game time, I'm there," Duckworth said. "As far as proving myself, I'm just here to win -- that's about it. I don't feel I have to prove what I'm capable of doing. I've already done that."

Happy memories

Flashback: Game 2 of the 1991-92 NBA Finals, and the Trail Blazers, furiously attempting to overcome a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit, are down 97-95 when the ball winds up with Duckworth, who is about eight feet from the basket.

Never mind that the Trail Blazers are already down a game in the finals and that Duckworth is 4-for-13 from the field. With 13.2 seconds left, he shoots and hits all net. The basket sends the game into overtime, where Portland gets a 115-104 win.

It seems hard to believe it happened just 16 months ago. Afterward, Portland guard Clyde Drexler had nothing but praise. "Duck's been a clutch player for us all year long," Drexler said. "He made the biggest shot of the night."

Reminded of that shot and happier days in Portland, Duckworth leaned his huge frame back in a chair and smiled.

"It felt good," he said. "I always felt good. I'm the type of player where I can play in crunch time."

And then some bitterness began to creep into his voice.

"I'm sure that if they had a chance to play it differently," Duckworth said, "then I wouldn't have had a chance to be out there."

"They" are Trail Blazers management, which Duckworth says was unfairly beginning to phase him out. A Western Conference All-Star in 1989 and 1991, Duckworth saw his playing time begin to decline steadily in 1991-92.

"When I came back the season after I went to my last All-Star Game, they treated me like a rookie -- like I had never accomplished anything," Duckworth said. "It was always, 'I've got to prove something.' You just get to the point where you don't want to feel like you have to prove something, that you just want to go out there and play."

Asked two weeks ago about Duckworth, Portland coach Rick Adelman said his former center "was just very unhappy with his situation.

"He lost his starting job, and he was very disconcerted with the way things were going," Adelman said. "When we had a chance to make a trade and get a quality player, we did.

"Kevin Duckworth is a very good player, and he'll probably have a good year in Washington."

A hole in the middle

Each night, the Bullets would throw Pervis Ellison and his 6-10, 225-pound frame against the top centers of the league. During a four-day stretch during the first week of last season, Ellison had to match up against the Cleveland Cavaliers' Brad Daugherty, the Orlando Magic's Shaquille O'Neal and the New York Knicks' Patrick Ewing -- all strong, 7-foot All-Stars. It's no wonder Ellison played only 49 games in 1992-93.

But Ellison was all the Bullets had. Since Malone left Washington, the team has paraded Charles Jones, Manute Bol and -- at the end of last season -- Mark Acres at center. In one of the games Ellison missed, Miami Heat center Rony Seikaly grabbed a career-high 34 rebounds.

"We're not big in size as far as centers, but we did have the ability to go inside and score a little easier on the Bullets than on other teams," Milwaukee coach Mike Dunleavy said. "Duckworth gives them some size, plus he's been an All-Star. He can rebound, he can score and he takes up a lot of space in the middle. He should help."

Even Duckworth can remember the advantage he felt he had against the Bullets -- although he never felt Portland used it.

"This team didn't have a center, but Portland would never take advantage of me, so it didn't make a difference," Duckworth said. "If they played Michael Adams [5-10] at center, I still wasn't going to be used in the post."

Posted with a purpose

That's where he'll be this season, with Ellison most likely moving to power forward when he returns from knee surgery. It'll be totally different for Duckworth, who won't be playing alongside Drexler, Terry Porter, Jerome Kersey and Buck Williams -- players who helped lead Portland to consecutive appearances in the NBA Finals.

"I don't know how it's going to be, to be honest," Duckworth said. "I think I'll provide scoring help and rebounding and clog the middle, but I'm not sure yet how it'll turn out. I'm just going to contribute to what they need me to do."

And that means banging with the tough Eastern Conference centers, a task that doesn't faze Duckworth.

"I don't have to prove anything to them, either," Duckworth said. "Those guys have played against me and know who I am."

Who Duckworth is is a player the Bullets hope will fill a tremendous void. What Duckworth wants is to be appreciated as a player, an opportunity he'll have this season. How it all turns out remains to be seen.

"This is a new beginning," Duckworth said. "I knew that the transition coming from a winning team to a team that was struggling would be hard.

"But in being around these guys, I realized that they want to win just as bad as anybody else. Their record shows that they didn't have a great season, but they still have that winning attitude. I want to prove to them that I'm here to win."

THE DUCKWORTH FILE

Size: 7 feet, 280 pounds.

College: Eastern Illinois; averaged 19.5 points, 9.1 rebounds as senior.

Draft: Taken in second round by San Antonio.

Trades: Traded by Spurs to Trail Blazers for Walter Berry; traded by Blazers to Bullets for Harvey Grant.

All-Star Games: Selected in 1989 and 1991.

Honors: Most Improved Player, 1998.

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