In need of lift, lowly Rockets pick Sampson

Except for the first player selected, 7 ft. 4 in. center Ralph Sampson of Virginia, this year's National Basketball Association college draft probably won't be remembered as anything special.

This isn't to say that some of the others picked can't become regulars or even stars. There are always a few surprises. But as General Manager Jerry West of the Los Angeles Lakers told reporters: ''Most of the players selected in this year's draft won't be as good as advertised.''

Sampson, of course, has an enormous task on his hands. Ralph is being touted as a rookie who can come into the NBA cold and turn a losing franchise around, in this case the Houston Rockets.

Last year Houston had the worst won-lost record (14-68) of any team in the league. In fact the Rockets were outscored an average of 11.6 points per game and had only nine victories at home, where even poor teams often play well.

Next season things should be different. For besides a new center, Houston will be coached by Bill Fitch, who's come over from the Boston Celtics. Fitch once built a winner from scratch in Cleveland and understands the kind of defense needed to win in the NBA. Add to this new look yet another heralded rookie, Louisville's 6-7 Rodney McCray, and you may have something.

But even pro basketball teams that have a center like Sampson don't come with guarantees. Lest anyone forget, Virginia never won an NCAA title with Ralph, even though the university's four-year record with him was 112-24. So no one should automatically count on the Rockets making next season's expanded playoffs.

NBA scouts who drooled over Sampson the last four years claim he's still not close to what he is going to be - which is an all-star. Simply looking at his physical assets (7-4; 230 lbs.; 88-inch arm span) and abilities, they see a man who can score, rebound, play defense, and block shots.

What no one can really say ahead of time is how tough Sampson is mentally. Pro basketball is different from the college game because of the almost constant travel, with four games in five nights not that unusual, plus the pressure that comes with having to produce every game - or close to it. The feeling here, after talking with numerous NBA executives, is that Sampson will adjust and become one of the game's top drawing cards for a long time.

After Sampson, the next player drafted was Missouri's 6-11 Steve Stipanovich by the Indiana Pacers. One scout told me Stipanovich will never be a regular, while another projects him as a star. In the pros he might be better suited to play forward than center.

The Rockets then used their second pick and the third overall to grab McCray, an excellent passing forward who should complement Sampson. San Diego followed with a surprise choice. Instead of going for a big man, the Clippers opted for 6-4 guard Byron Scott of Arizona State, who exhibited unabashed confidence by describing himself to reporters as a small Magic Johnson.

The Chicago Bulls, who reportedly have decided not to make an offer to free-agent Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of the Lakers, took 6-9 forward Sidney Green of Nevada-Las Vegas. Green finished his career with the Rebels as the school's all-time leading rebounder and second leading scorer.

With the next pick, Golden State selected 6-10 center Russell Cross, a junior out of Purdue whom the Warriors plan to use as a power forward. The Utah Jazz then went with forward Thurl Bailey of North Carolina State; the Detroit Pistons with forward Antoine Carr of Wichita State; and the Dallas Mavericks with forward Dale Ellis of Tennessee. The Washington Bullets rounded out the first 10 by taking guard Jeff Malone of Mississippi State.

Prior to the draft the Boston Celtics, badly in need of an established guard who can shoot and play defense, acquired Dennis Johnson from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for reserve center Rick Robey. Meanwhile the Seattle SuperSonics sent veteran forward Lonnie Shelton to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for cash and a second-round choice, which was used to select Louisville forward Scooter McCray, Rodney's brother.

In what has to be some kind of record, nine NBA teams will have new coaches next season. The list includes: John Bach (Golden State); Bill Fitch (Boston to Houston); K.C. Jones (Boston); Kevin Loughery (Atlanta to Chicago); Mike Fratello (Atlanta); Jim Lynam (San Diego); Chuck Daly (Detroit); Stan Albeck (San Antonio to New Jersey); and Morris McHone (San Antonio).

It's no accident, as Sports Illustrated pointed out, that none of the nine came directly from the college ranks and that five (Bach, Jones, Fratello, Lynam , and McHone) were all NBA assistants last season.

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