NEW YORK -- Ask Washington Bullets center Kevin Duckworth about last season, and notice the blank look. Not a surprising reaction after a dismal season in which he felt he was wrongly used and underappreciated -- which may have stemmed from his being overweight and underproductive.
"When I was back home in Portland early in the summer and thought about the season," Duckworth said, "I really didn't want to come back."
And some Bullets fans probably didn't want Duckworth back, not after perhaps his worst season as a professional, when he averaged 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds a game. His 41.7 percent shooting from the field was a low for his eight-year career, and his perceived lack of effort on the court made him a target for disgruntled fans.
It wasn't exactly what was expected of the man who was supposed to be the team's first real presence at center since Moses Malone.
But there's a slightly slimmer model (301 pounds, down from approximately 340 last year) of Duckworth on display for the Bullets these days, a version that seems willing to put last season's disappointment behind him.
And although he hadn't exactly torn up the preseason (10.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 43.3 percent from the field) before last night's 24-point, eight-rebound effort against the New York Knicks, the Bullets are hoping that Duckworth materializes into the productive post player the team was seeking when it traded for him before last season.
"He's probably in as good a shape as he was when he was playing at an All-Star level with the Portland Trail Blazers," said Bullets coach Jim Lynam, who was impressed with his hustling defense as well as his 8-for-10 shooting last night. "The play at the center position [last season] was not up to par to compete night in and night out in the NBA. Duckworth was not in top condition, and it wasn't until well into the season when he began to approach that."
So Duckworth -- at the Bullets' recommendation -- spent the off-season working to get in top condition. Depending on which Duckworth interview one believes, either he did or didn't spend time at the Duke University weight loss clinic.
"I was at Duke for just a second -- I wasn't there for a month like some people said," Duckworth said. "It's a situation there where you're forced to isolate yourself from everybody."
Regardless of the length of stay, the results are noticeable. Duckworth is nearly 40 pounds lighter, has shown a great deal more quickness, is finishing plays strongly and seems to be playing with more confidence.
"I ran every day over the summer, lifted weights, did aerobics," Duckworth said. "I feel great. My body is tighter, I lost a lot of body fat and I feel good."
And he's even getting a bit of appreciation. There were some cheers for him at a public scrimmage last week after Duckworth threw down a couple of baseline dunks -- plays that were little seen last season.
'A whole new person'
Asked about the new Duckworth, Tom Gugliotta just shook his head.
"It's unbelievable, night and day," Gugliotta said. "He's come in and worked very hard and seems to be in great shape. He has full confidence in the post, he's just a whole new person. He's having fun, and I think that's what was missing last year.
"I'm sure Kevin put all that stuff from last year on his shoulders," Gugliotta added. "He feels like he's an integral part of this team, and we told him we need him to win."
He didn't feel that way a year ago, his lack of production forcing him into a role as an outsider.
"I was disappointed with the way I played last year," he said. "If my attitude wasn't different, I wouldn't have come back. I feel 100 percent better than last year, I'm having fun, and I'm just playing ball."
Offensively, Duckworth should have a more central role. Like last season, the team has gone to him in the low post, where he has better than average footwork for a big man. Unlike last season, Duckworth will be able to spot up for more medium-range jumpers out of the motion offense.
"I've proven throughout my career that I can hit that shot," he said.
As long as Duckworth can hit it, Lynam will be willing to give him the green light. While the 7-foot-7 Gheorghe Muresan has become a crowd favorite -- and some feel he's capable of becoming a starter -- Lynam knows he'll need key minutes from his veteran center.
"Yes, he's our starting center," Lynam said. "On some occasions he'll post up, on others he'll shoot the jumper. But I'm not concerned with his offense. We need him to be a factor on the defensive end. We have enough firepower to get points on the board."
Eager to get started
Lynam has gone to great lengths to let Duckworth know his skills are needed, even flying to Portland for several days over the summer to watch tapes with the center and define his role.
Duckworth said he appreciated the effort by Lynam, and is eager to show what he can do.
"There's only one exciting thing that's going on in my life," Duckworth said. "And that's the season coming up."