Los Angeles — With the National Basketball Association now into the second half of its 82 -game schedule, many fans are still talking about the quality rookies.
While everybody expected big things from first-year players Mark Aguirre of the Dallas Mavericks and Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons, nobody was quite prepared for what other less touted rookies have been able to do.
Chief among them is small forward Kelly Tripucka, the twelfth player taken in last June's college draft by Detroit, which was owed that pick by the Kansas City Kings.
The original scouting reports on Tripucka, despite a fine college career at Notre Dame, said he was probably a step too slow for the NBA. Apparently not enough scouts took note of his aggressiveness. At the moment, Kelly's 20.6 scoring average is the highest of any NBA rookie. He is also third on the Pistons in rebounds.
If balloting for the NBA's Rookie of the Year were held tomorrow, there's a good chance that Tripucka would finish ahead of Aguirre and Thomas, both of whom were sidelined with injuries earlier this season.
Other first-year players (and by no means all) who have done well include Jeff Ruland of Washington; Jay Vincent of Dallas; Sam Williams of Golden State; Tom Chambers of San Diego; Buck Williams of New Jersey; and Peter Verhoeven of Portland.
Even though his team isn't going any place this season, the 6 ft. 11 in. Chambers seems to have a bright future at center. By next season, Tom should be scoring somewhere in the range of 18 to 20 points per game, while continuing to make his presence felt on the boards.
Plenty of NBA teams would also like to have Vincent, who got his chance to play when Aguirre got hurt. A two-time Big Ten scoring champ while at Michigan State, Vincent can shoot, rebound, and play defense. And when the 6-7, 240-pound forward gets position inside, he keeps it.
As for this season's division races, the theme is to look into last year's mirror. The regular season tends to follow a pattern of familiar names.
In the Atlantic Division, the Boston Celtics continue to hammer their opponents into submission with their Twin Towers of center Robert Parish and center-forward Kevin McHale, plus catalyst Larry Bird. If those who vote for the NBA's most valuable player weren't always so preoccupied with scoring, Bird could easily win that honor this season - and probably will anyway.
Until they lost center Darryl Dawkins with a broken leg, the Philadelphia 76 ers looked as though they might again match the Celtics victory for victory during the regular season. But now they may have to wait until the playoffs to find out how good they really are. In a dogfight for third place are Washington, New York, and New Jersey.
In the Midwest the San Antonio Spurs are probably going to finish first, despite a defense that has been allowing 109 points per game. It is unlikely that the Denver Nuggets can catch them, and unless coach Del Harris of the Houston Rockets changes his offense so that center Moses Malone gets to operate more inside, you can forget Houston. Kansas City, Utah, and Dallas will bring up the rear.
In the Central the Milwaukee Bucks should continue to have things all to themselves. The race there is for second place and currently involves four teams - Atlanta, Indiana, Detroit, and Chicago. Cleveland, like any team that consistently trades away high draft choices, is along mostly for the ride.
In the Pacific the Seattle SuperSonics, with both Gus Williams (holdout) and Lonnie Shelton (injuries) back after playing only 14 games between them last year, may be just as good as the Los Angeles Lakers. In fact, the final regular season standings may depend on who wins the individual battle at center (Seattle's Jack Sikma or L.A.'s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) when these teams meet.
Only a piece of paper should separate Phoenix, Portland, and Golden State for third place. About all cellar-dwelling San Diego can look forward to is a high pick in this year's college draft.