JOHN LUCAS, GUARD, HOUSTON
Why would a team use the No. 1 pick in the whole NBA draft for a part-time tennis player when it already owns a midget baton twirler? "There was never a question in my mind," says Coach Tom Nissalke, whose rapid-firing Rockets—Calvin (Tiny Twirler) Murphy, Rudy Tomjanovich and Mike Newlin—badly needed direction up and down the floor. Lucas, a Maryland graduate, has already become one of the league's top playmakers, and the Rockets are headed for the playoffs. " Lucas will make mistakes," says Nissalke. "But he won't make them twice."
MITCH KUPCHAK, CENTER-FORWARD; LARRY WRIGHT, GUARD, WASHINGTON
With two rookies among their first eight players, the Bullets are rebuilding, right? Wrong. Rebuilt. Kupchak, the Olympian out of the University of North Carolina, is the first capable relief Wes Unseld has ever had. Playing 17 minutes a game and giving both Unseld and Elvin Hayes breathers, he averages nine points and 5.4 rebounds, shoots 56% and leads the Bullets in diving on the floor. Coach Dick Motta calls Kupchak "a 6'9" Jerry Sloan." Wright, a peppery penetrator from Grambling, passed his rookie test early: against Boston last November, he came in to score 23 points, including six for six from the foul line in the final 28 seconds, to win the game. When the Bullets were floundering in mid-January, he became a starter and the team won 12 of 16. Says General Manager Bob Ferry, "The relentless enthusiasm of Mitch and Larry is the reason we're winning."
RON LEE, GUARD, PHOENIX
Lee got his education at the only accredited Kamikaze school in America, the University of Oregon. After four years under Coach Dick Harter's dive-or-die system, Lee did not move into the NBA, he barreled into it. In training camp he drove his teammates crazy with his hustle, and they nicknamed him "Taz" for "Tasmanian Devil." He started 25 games, averaging 13 points and four assists while shooting 48% and routinely crashing into the loge for loose balls until Coach John MacLeod went back to using him off the bench. Says Guard Paul Westphal, "Ronnie must not realize the enormity of what he's doing."
SCOTT MAY, FORWARD, CHICAGO
Even before he led Indiana to the NCAA championship in 1976, May was an odds-on bet to bring the NBA to its knees in his rookie season. But early in training camp the No. 2 pick in the draft was felled by a case of mononucleosis and he did not return to full strength until February. He is now averaging 14 points a game, while the Bulls are battling for a playoff berth. "He's another Chet Walker," says Indiana Pacer Coach Slick Leonard. Says May, "It's all coming back."
ROBERT PARISH, CENTER, GOLDEN STATE
"Dantley may be the best rookie now," says Nets Coach Kevin Loughery, "but if you're talking about potential, it's Robert Parish." The 7-foot Parish has a big future and no past—because the NCAA does not recognize the existence of his college, Centenary. No matter. "He can shoot," says Coach Al Attles, "and when you find that talent in a center you can wait for improvement in other departments." Parish plays behind Clifford Ray, and while sitting on the bench he puts hot water bottles on his feet to warm up his congenitally cold ankles.
QUINN BUCKNER, GUARD, MILWAUKEE
" Buckner is funny," says one NBA scout. "He doesn't shoot well, isn't real quick, but every team he's ever run has been a champion." What he is, is smart, a good defender and a good passer. "He fills a void in the toughest position to fill," says Coach Don Nelson, "the guy who will sacrifice night in and night out. You can build around a player like that." Buckner captained Indiana's 1976 NCAA champions and the Olympic team. Fans immediately dubbed him "the new Oscar Robertson."
RICHARD WASHINGTON, FORWARD, KANSAS CITY
As the No. 3 pick from UCLA in the draft, Washington instantly became a big man in Kansas City. By mid-December he was starting and averaging nine points and 14.6 rebounds when the season began to seem like one long sociology lecture. "I know there were 82 games, but I didn't know there were practices every day," said Washington. He began to run down. In a game against Boston, he says, "I was getting tired and I thought I'd hitch a ride on Sidney Wicks' jersey. Then I heard my name. It was Wicks saying, 'Richard, you do that again and I'll hit you.' "
EARL TATUM, SWINGMAN, LOS ANGELES
Al McGuire, Tatum's coach at Marquette, used to call him "the black Jerry West." So when he arrived in L.A. he naturally had to go one-on-one with the white Jerry West. Afterward, Coach West gave him the ultimate accolade: "He's a player." Under West's tutelage, Tatum, who has mostly played forward, is learning the guard position to take advantage of his size. He has done all right up front; in one quarter of one game he burned Dr. J for 19 points. "I could do that stuff all the time," he said, "but the coach would bench me if I got out of control."