Los Angeles — In terms of both performance and the ability to create excitement, the three best rookies in the National Basketball Association so far this sason have been forwards James Worthy of Los Angeles, Terry Cummings of San Diego, and Dominique Wilkins of Atlanta. They have overrun and overpowered practically all of their opponents with their firepower.
Defensively, Worthy, Cummings, and Wilkins are still learning their trade, a long, drawn-out process in the pros, where a player must first convince himself that it's worth the trouble. Too many high-scoring collegians come into the NBA with the attitude that asking a shooter to play defense is like asking a racehorse to pull a milk wagon. Often they end up playing hard at only one end of the court.
But Worthy, Cummings, and Wilkins don't seem to shirk their responsibilities when the other team has the ball. And as they improve defensively, so will their teams. In the meantime, fans are reveling in the creative ways they deliver the ball to the basket.
Worthy, the No. 1 pick in the entire draft, needs only one giant step at the top of the key to launch himself into scoring position. James has not been starting for the defending NBA champions, but his playing time will probably equal that of Wilkins and Cummings by the end of the season.
Because of his versatility, he comes in for either Kurt Rambis at ''power'' forward or Jamaal Wilkes at ''small'' forward. Worthy obviously is good enough to start ahead of Rambis, but Laker coach Pat Riley prefers bringing him in off the bench. Few teams, of course, have the luxury of removing a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Rambis and replacing them with players the caliber of Bob McAdoo, Michael Cooper, and Worthy.
''The main thing I like about Worthy is that his style fits in so well with what we already have,'' said Laker general manager Jerry West. ''We didn't get James to start. We got him because, coming out of North Carolina, we knew he'd be fundamentally sound; we knew he could play more than one position; and because he has all the tools to be a good defensive player. Worthy isn't passing the ball as well right now as we thought he would, but I think you'll see that change as soon as he gets a little more experience.''
Cummings, an ordained Pentecostal minister out of DePaul who has been starting for the San Diego Clippers, probably has as accurate a jumpshot as you'll find in the league. The Lakers, with a chance to draft Cummings ahead of Worthy, agonized over that decision for weeks. With the second overall pick, San Diego wasted no time in selecting Terry.
Although Cummings was late in signing with the Clippers, he stayed in shape while his contract was being negotiated by playing with Athletes in Action. This is a powerful young man who often owns both backboards, who can run, and in a pinch could even be used to bring the ball upcourt.
In only his third game with San Diego, Terry scored 32 points and grabbed 24 rebounds against the Indiana Pacers. Those are all-star figures in any league. With virtually no pressure on him because the Clippers aren't going anywhere and with a chance to play 40 minutes a game, Cummings is in the process of shooting himself onto a national magazine cover.
Although Dominique Wilkins, the Human Highlight Film from the University of Georgia, was drafted third overall in the NBA by Utah, he will never play a minute for the Jazz. Either unable or unwilling to pay this rookie more than a million dollars to get his signature on a multi-year contract, Utah traded Wilkins to the Atlanta Hawks.
While most organizations wouldn't want to live with the kind of criticism that the Jazz got for dealing Wilkins, Utah has been there before. Seven times during the team's eight-year history it has allowed a top draft choice to slip through its fingers.
Dominique is part showman and part basketball player. Some of his moves to the basket have already been compared to those of Philadelphia's Julius Erving. Like Dr. J, he can skywalk, he can shoot, and when the lead is big enough he's often as showbiz as the Harlem Globetrotters. It has been reported that Philadelphia scouts, prior to the draft, rated Dominique the best college forward in the nation.
Though some have since been cut, 49 rookies started the season Oct. 29 on NBA rosters. None, however, have so far stirred quite the crowd reaction credited to Worthy, Cummings, and Wilkins.