After the accident Bradley played sparingly at first, but had a couple of good scoring games. Then he went into decline, a string of eight games in which he played very poorly and lost much of whatever confidence he had been gaining. The period included two low points: his professional debut in his home-town area of St. Louis, where he scored just two points, and five nights later in Cincinnati, a game in which he did not play at all.
Since that time he has enjoyed increasingly more playing time and has had varying degrees of success in a New York drive that has landed the Knicks in third place, with a playoff spot virtually assured them for the first time in nine years. Several factors, however, have combined to make Bradley's performance to date unsatisfactory to a public and press intolerant of mortal deficiencies.
There is no question that Bradley was rushed along too quickly by McGuire, who was under the immense strain of a losing streak and severe pressure to play his new arrival for a good part of every game. Under McGuire, Bradley averaged 29 minutes of playing time; Holzman has used him an average of 16 minutes.
Despite his long absence from the game and unfamiliarity with the caliber of opponent he has had to face so quickly, Bradley, from the beginning, has done two things very well: shoot and pass. Left alone with an open shot, he is the best shooter from any angle on the New York team, though several of the Knicks are better in heavy traffic. Only Frazier approaches him in passing skill and ability to hit the open man. There are also two very weak aspects of Bradley's game. One is moving without the ball, which is understandable because he has not had to do that since college (and, even then, not to the extent that he must learn to do it now). The second includes all the phases of defense. Bradley all too often gets "lighted up" by small, quick guards who take advantage of his inexperience. His mastery of the other elements of the game falls somewhere in between his shooting and passing highs and his defensive lows. Rebounding, ball-handling control speed, strength and jumping are all relative to the quality of the competition. However, in that area of performance that does not lend itself to tallying by point or percentage yet is crucial to team success—intelligent leadership and direction—Bradley is superb. He may never be able to control a game offensively as does Oscar Robertson, or defensively in the manner of Bill Russell, but in time he will control his team in a way that will make New York a vital force for years to come.
One of the toughest obstacles that Bradley has had to contend with is, of course, his size. At 6'5" he is an in-between player—too big for the back-court and too small for the corner. This would be cause enough for an alibi so far as scoring heroics go. The men who have made the biggest splashes as NBA rookies—Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Rick Barry, Dave Bing and, this year, Earl Monroe—were all playing their natural positions on teams whose members were willing to subjugate their own talents to the skills of the new star. Only two in-betweeners in the history of the NBA have scored heavily in their rookie years, Oscar Robertson and Elgin Baylor. Undoubtedly they are, by any standards, the best at their positions that the game has ever known. Robertson is a guard and Baylor a forward, and both men had the good fortune to come into the league with weak teams that had finished last the previous year and lacked the big scorer at their particular position.
Bradley, on the other hand, has come onto a New York team so loaded with scoring talent everywhere that hesitant, uncertain deployment of the overkill probably cost McGuire his job. The Knicks truly may be the only team in the league that will be helped, rather than hurt, by expansion. Bradley also has played exclusively in the backcourt, where he has had to break into a lineup, and share playing time, with three good veterans and another high-priced rookie, Frazier. This has led some observers to lean on circumstance as a primary factor in his slow development.
" Bradley is with the wrong team to become a superstar," says Detroit's Dave DeBusschere. "There's too much pressure in New York and too much personnel. When they get the heat off him—like they finally got the heat off Cazzie—he'll settle down and be consistent. But the Knicks press too much for a guy like Bradley to be a real force in the backcourt."
Red Auerbach says Bradley may be playing the wrong position. "The Knicks couldn't afford to experiment with him too much because they had to win and make the playoffs, but if I had him I'd want to look at him for a while as a forward," says Auerbach. "I'm sure they've thought about it even though they can't bear the luxury of trying him there."
Fred Schaus, general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, is another who feels this way. "It is so much more difficult for a guard to break into the NBA than for a forward," says Schaus. "A corner man has the baseline to go to, or the big man can help him out. But more is asked of a guard defensively, there's more area to maneuver in and he can get undressed pretty easily. Plus he's got to run the ball club offensively. It may be that Bradley eventually will be playing the corner a great deal."
In recent years rookies of Bradley's size and ability have been made into what the NBA calls "bastard" forwards. Boston's John Havlicek was the first, though he was no offensive star. He made it big right away on his defense, because the Celtics had the shooters to carry him. Havlicek was followed by, among others, Joe Caldwell, Billy Cunningham, the Van Arsdale twins and Cazzie Russell, all of whom can swing between guard and forward but have proved to be more effective in the forecourt, where they can use their quickness and speed to get around bigger but slower defenders. Russell, in fact, was considered something of a bust when he played guard as a rookie last year. This season he has been outstanding as a forward.