Los Angeles — Some rookies come into the National Basketball Association without much more to recommend them than an outstanding jump shot, their grasp of fundamentals average at best. Two years later they might still be sitting at the end of some team's bench, but they know they'll soon have to seek employment elsewhere.
One player they will never be able to say that about is forward Terry Cummings of the San Diego Clippers, who is probably going to be this season's NBA Rookie of the Year. He's not the only one in the running, of course. Cases can also be made for James Worthy of the Los Angeles Lakers, Dominique Wilkins of the Atlanta Hawks, and Clark Kellogg of the Indiana Pacers.
The differences are the stretch marks in Cummings's overall game, which go in as many directions as a spider's web. Terry is more than just an offensive force who has been among the league's top 10 scorers (23.5 average) all season. He is also a talented rebounder, a gifted passer, and a young man who has something you can't teach - court sense. He recognizes floor situations so well that he is rarely caught out of position.
When Cummings was starring at DePaul University, he simply outgrew the college game. So he opted to turn pro a year early and was drafted by a team that could afford to start him right away. However, in retrospect, it seems likely that almost any NBA team would have made an immediate place for him in its lineup.
Cummings is one of those clever kids who is constantly refining his game. Three years ago, if an opponent could keep Terry 10 or more feet away from the basket, his shooting suffered. So he went out and practiced by himself until he had increased his scoring range another 10 to 15 feet.
''All rookies have rough spots in their games that they have to work to improve, and Cummings is no exception,'' explained San Diego coach Paul Silas. ''But how many forwards, in a pinch, could you ask to bring the ball up against a press and feel certain they wouldn't lose it? I think what we have here is a forward who sometimes thinks and plays like a guard.''
Probably the best way to get an idea of Cummings's quickness is to watch him work the boards, particularly the offensive board, where he has excelled all season.
Although not as physical a rebounder as Maurice Lucas of the New York Knicks, Terry has the same kind of instincts for the ball. When Ray Meyer coached him at DePaul, Meyer used to say that he was the best college rebounder for his size (6 ft. 9 in. and 220 pounds) he'd ever seen.
Despite the leadership qualities that Cummings obviously brings to every game as far as Silas is concerned, most fans seem unaware of how deep this gift runs in Terry.
Often leadership can take the form of an encouraging word to a teammate off the court or simply feeding the ball to a player who has worked extra hard to get open under the basket. Leadership doesn't necessarily occur when a player with the ball suddenly slows things down and waves madly to one of his teammates to move in a certain direction.
If the Clippers' management ever had any doubts about Cummings, he dissolved them in his very first NBA game. The Milwaukee Bucks, even with Marques Johnson switching off occasionally against him, couldn't stop Terry from scoring 19 points. The fact that several of those baskets came during one-on-one situations was more the fault of his teammates not including him in their offense than any individuality on his part.
''So far the NBA has been pretty much what I thought it would be - tough and demanding and with no way of anticipating how much the travel time can wear on you,'' Cummings said recently in the visitors' locker room at the Forum. ''But if you're willing to move and work for your shots, the opportunities for points are there.
''Defensively you have to stay close to the man you're guarding and use your body a lot, particularly against forwards with a lot of quickness. Otherwise you're giving them too much room in which to operate.''
Cummings, the only ordained Pentecostal minister in the NBA, is not shy about saying that he relies on God in everything he does. In fact, he would like to start a kind of outreach program with local churches in every NBA city to get players more involved with religion.