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TERRY CUMMINGS : Since Milwaukee Traded Three to Get Him, He Has Been Playing Like a Million Bucks

January 27, 1985|MIKE KUPPER | Times Assistant Sports Editor

MILWAUKEE — Let's see now. In his two seasons with the San Diego Clippers, Terry Cummings led the team in scoring with averages of 23.7 and 22.9 points a game. He was Rookie of the Year in the National Basketball Assn. in 1982-83.

With the Milwaukee Bucks this season, Cummings is shooting better than 51%, is averaging nearly 25 points a game, leads the team in rebounds, is second in shot-blocking and is third in steals on a club that prides itself on its defense.

Think how good he will be when he finally learns the game.

Don Nelson, Cummings' coach, thinks about that a lot, and smiles, noting that Cummings is the most talented player he has ever coached.

Nelson has every right to smile these days. In one fell swoop last September, he landed the power forward the Bucks have needed for about a dozen seasons, unloaded an increasingly burdensome salary and turned what looked like a long-range benefit into instant gratification.

The conventional wisdom on the trade that sent Marques Johnson, Junior Bridgeman and Harvey Catchings to the L.A. Clippers for Cummings and guards Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce was that the Clippers were getting immediate help but that the Bucks, who also had lost center Bob Lanier to retirement, would have to live with rebuilding pains.

It hasn't turned out that way.

When last seen, the Bucks, thanks in no small measure to Cummings, were cruising nicely through the season. They rang up one impressive nine-game winning streak, numbering among their victims--in road games--both the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers. Recently, they beat the Lakers, the best in the West. They are now working on a new seven-game winning streak, have won 16 of their last 19 and are comfortably ensconced in the Central Division lead, as usual.

The Clippers? Well, they may have changed hometowns and they may be somewhat improved, but they still have a tendency to lapse back into the kind of play that the NBA has come to know and take advantage of.

Bridgeman has been all they had hoped he would be, maybe more, but Johnson, hampered by a finger injury in training camp and a pulled hamstring later, has yet to become the force he was with the Bucks. Although Johnson has shown recent signs of a return to form, the Clippers enjoyed their greatest success while he was out of the lineup last month, and he has recently been out of action again with a sprained ankle.

Thus, the early returns give Milwaukee the edge in the swap.

Nelson wouldn't mind saying that he had planned just such a season for the Bucks, but the fact is, he is as surprised as anyone, with both Cummings' play and the progress of the Bucks.

"Obviously there are more parts to a team than one, two or three men, but he's been as big as anything," Nelson said, relating the two. "It's hard for me to fathom anybody much better at that (power forward) position than he is."

Even so, Nelson said, Cummings is not nearly as good now as he can be. "He's the most gifted player I've ever coached, but he's not the best. Someday, maybe. He's just beginning to learn the game," Nelson said.

"He's always been able to get by on his physical skills. His first statement to me was that he wanted to be an all-around player, like Larry Bird or Dr. J. I said, 'Great, but it's going to be a lotta work 'cause you're a long way from being there.' "

Does that strike an off-chord? How can an established pro star not know the game he has been playing all his life?

Nelson comes back to Cummings' physical abilities. "He's been able to go out and play and do just about whatever he's wanted because of his skills," Nelson said. " . . . Usually those skills are enough in college, so you don't spend the extra time to make that player well rounded.

"In the pro game, it's different--at least here it is--and we strive that every player here know the game.

"Terry's scoring and rebounding have been great, but I've been looking for him to concentrate more on defense and to get his passing skills down and not just rely on physical skills. The other thing with Terry was that his concentration level was very poor. We have an elaborate system here and we do have to have people who can concentrate for long periods of time. . . . We have to have thinking players."

To that end, Nelson has been on Cummings, hard, since the day Cummings reported.

At one point early this season, Cummings joked that he would have to get a saddle on his back if Nelson were going to continue riding him so hard.

He also said, though, that he is grateful for the learning experience. "I've always had the talent," he said. "This year I sort of went to school and started to learn the game.

"Inwardly, I'm exerting the same amount of energy. The difference is in being in a much more professional atmosphere. I've always been able to learn from people who could teach me. In San Diego, I'd just go out and play. It finally got to the point where I didn't want to learn anything."

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