There are nights when Washington Bullets swingman Calbert Cheaney looks as if he can do no wrong.
Last month against the Golden State Warriors, for example, Cheaney's left-handed jumper looked as smooth as it did two years ago when he was the consensus national player of the year at Indiana. He also was explosive going to the basket, scoring a career-high 32 points.
"Sometimes you get games," Cheaney said at the time, trying to pull a positive out of what had been a Bullets loss, "where everything feels good."
And then there are nights when Cheaney looks to be trying to find his way around, such as about two weeks ago at Miami, where he hit just one of 10 shots in 27 minutes and scored four points.
Cheaney's numbers have been more than respectable. His 16.3-point scoring average ranks third on the team, behind Chris Webber and Rex Chapman. He's hitting 45.4 percent of his shots. He has made 65 three-point baskets, second-most on the team, compared with just one all of last season.
And he has been an iron man -- one of three Bullets to play in all 51 games going into tonight's contest against the Atlanta Hawks at the Baltimore Arena.
Yet, Bullets general manager John Nash said Cheaney may be just scratching the surface of his potential.
"He wants to be a good player, he wants to be a great player," Nash said. "Calbert should have more confidence in his ability. Calbert is even better than Calbert realizes.
"Calbert has to realize that this isn't much different than college," Nash added. "When players come into the NBA, there's a maturity process that takes place."
Cheaney, 6 feet 7, began his rookie season starting at small forward, a position he would lose after five games to the 6-10 Don MacLean after being physically overmatched.
Cheaney wouldn't start another game until January, and only after shooting guard Chapman suffered a dislocated right ankle that forced him to miss 21 games. Cheaney averaged 18.2 points as a starter while replacing Chapman, and had back-to-back games of 30 and 31 points before he went down with a partially torn tendon in his left heel, forcing him to miss 16 games. He finished the season averaging 12.0 points.
With injuries this year to MacLean and Chapman, Cheaney has played shooting guard and small forward and made 45 starts. Lately, Cheaney has been starting at guard and spelling Juwan Howard at forward.
"In our offense, there isn't much difference [between small forward and shooting guard]," Cheaney said. "I feel comfortable playing both. I might not have the size of some of the small forwards, but I can make up for that with my speed."
And Cheaney will use that speed to take small forwards off the dribble from the outside, pulling up in the lane and lofting his soft jump shot.
What coach Jim Lynam wants to see at times is for Cheaney to continue that move one or two more steps to the basket, so the team's third-best free-throw shooter can get to the line more often.
As aggressive as Cheaney is off the dribble, he has taken just four free throws in the past three games.
"As a team we don't get to the line enough, and I'd like to see him more aggressive to the basket," Lynam said. "But overall I've been pleased with his play. Every time I look at the statistics over his last five games he's been very consistent."
And yet Cheaney's frustration -- and that of his teammates -- shows more and more as the Bullets continue to lose.
When Washington signed Howard and traded for Webber, Cheaney was as excited as anyone else in the Bullets organization, especially with a chance to play alongside a pair he competed against in the Big Ten.
But the Bullets have struggled to a 12-39 mark, worst in the Eastern Conference, have the NBA's longest current losing streak at five games and have dropped 11 of their past 12.
"I just can't explain it," Cheaney said after a loss this week to the Dallas Mavericks in which the Bullets blew a 21-point second-half lead. "You get the feeling like you're never going to come out of this thing. But you have to go out and keep trying."
One excuse might be the youthfulness of the Bullets, who, with an average age of 25, have the second-youngest team in the league behind the Mavs. Seven players have two years of experience or less, but Nash doesn't totally buy that as an excuse.
"Some of the teams that have beaten us have been youthful teams," Nash said. "Injuries, youthfulness are a part of the problem. But they're not the whole problem."
Said Cheaney: "This has been a real difficult season for all of us. Hopefully, we'll get it together and turn this all around soon."
NOTES: Washington's final game in Baltimore this season will be March 10 against the Milwaukee Bucks. . . . Howard tipped off "The Juwan Howard Foundation Inc." last night at Planet Hollywood in Washington. The foundation will provide assistance schools, children at risk and families in need.
BULLETS IN TOWN
Opponent: Atlanta Hawks
Site: Baltimore Arena. The Bullets are 1-1 in Baltimore this season.
Time: 7:30 tonight
TV/Radio: Ch. 20/WTEM (570 AM)
! Tickets: Sold out
Opponent: Atlanta Hawks
Site: Baltimore Arena
TV/Radio: Channel 20/WTEM (570 AM)
Tickets: Sold out
Outlook: The Hawks have won both meetings against the Bullets this season, 112-90 in Atlanta on Jan. 6 and 99-96 at USAir Arena on Jan. 10. Atlanta broke a two-game losing streak last night with a 110-92 win over Dallas. Despite being three games below .500, the Hawks would make the playoffs if the season ended today. G Mookie Blaylock leads Atlanta in scoring at 16.7 ppg, followed by G Steve Smith at 15.4. The Bullets have lost five straight, the longest current losing streak in the NBA. This is the third of four games in Baltimore for the Bullets, who beat the Philadelphia 76ers in their last game here Jan. 20.