It can be a little misleading to rave about Michael Jordan's ability to get off shots against redwood-like National Basketball Association defenders. His baskets are such things of beauty - hardly even disturbing the twine as they zip through the hoop - that they tend to obscure all the other skills of the Chicago Bulls' prize rookie. For besides being a scoring whiz, Jordan is a talented ball-handler, a solid defensive player, and even a reasonably good rebounder.
Since becoming the Bulls' first draft choice, Michael has been averaging better than 27 points a game, including a season high 45 against the Indiana Pacers. Though a 6 ft. 6 in. guard, his arms are long enough (he reportedly has an 81-inch wingspan) so that he plays like a man 6-8 or even 6-9.
Consequently, against teams with relatively small forwards, he can to move to the frontcourt with no loss in production and without getting hurt on defense. His natural awareness of just what to do in key situations has had the same settling influence on Chicago that also showed up when he starred for Coach Bobby Knight's 1984 Olympic champions.
''Offensively, Jordan already knows what the pro game is all about,'' said General Manager Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers. ''Any team that doesn't put its best defensive guard on him is probably making a mistake. Right now he has that tremendous urge to put the ball in the basket that you get with all rookies who are high percentage shooters and know it.
''But once Jordan gets rid of the feeling that he has to continue to prove himself offensively, I think you'll begin to see more and more of that energy channeled into other parts of his game,'' West continued. ''So far he doesn't know his adversaries that well, but not many rookies come into this league and play as much defense as he does while still maintaining their offense.''
Considering that Jordan won't turtn 22 until February, his poise on the court and his ease with the public and press off it are remarkable. He is a class act as an interview: a rookie who doesn't rush his answers, who looks straight at you when he speaks, and whose vocabulary doesn't begin and end with the phrase ''you know.''
Asked about pro basketball with its many pressures, its disregard for normal eating habits, and its four-games-in-five-nights routine that can make a player feel as though Chicago and Boston have the same zip code, Jordan replied:
''James Worthy of the Lakers is a friend of mine whom I see frequently during the off-season, and having him tell me what the league would be like my first year really helped. I don't mean that I still don't have things to learn. Everything in the NBA is magnified compared to college ball, like the constant traveling, the mental preparation, and the concentration once you take the floor. But at least I had an idea ahead of time of some of the problems.
''So far I've just tried to do the same things I did in college and in the Olympics,'' Michael went on. ''I'm not into telling myself that I have to score a certain number of points every game or play a certain number of minutes. What I've done mostly is try to blend with the people who are already here. When we don't have back-to-back games, I'll replay in my mind what happened the night before; otherwise, I don't even think about it.''
Lenny Wilkens, a former NBA all-star guard who now coaches the Seattle SuperSonics, claims he has already seen Jordan do some things on offense that are beyond the capabilities of many of the league's veteran players.
''I'd like to explain some of Michael's moves, except that they are so subtle that only someone who has played in the NBA would know what I was talking about, '' Wilkens said. ''But they have to do with the way Jordan uses his hands and his body to create shots for himself. It's the same kind of clever stuff that Oscar Robertson and Jerry West did when they played pro ball.
''The other thing I like about this kid is that he obviously understands and likes to play defense, which is unusual in rookies,'' Lenny added. ''But what people are going to talk about, of course, is his offense. In fact, he even moves well without the ball.
''Like David Thompson, Jordan is a leaper who will go right up over you to score. I don't mean to imply that he is the equal of a skywalker like Thompson. Players who went into the air to guard David usually found themselves coming down while Thompson was still going up. But I'll tell you this: Michael, by the time he's through, will be a much better overall player.''
For the previously lackluster Bulls, who finished 23 games behind Milwaukee in the Central Division last season, Jordan's impact at the box office, both at home and on the road, has been tremendous.
Michael's secret, of course, is that all of his eye-compelling moves are rooted in functional, solid basketball, a characteristic he shares with Robertson and West.