Guard Sidney Moncrief of the Milwaukee Bucks, who was voted the best defensive player in the National Basketball Association last season, does not belong among the sport's most electrifying superstars. It's not because Sidney has no offense, however. On the contrary, he also led the Bucks in scoring last year with a 22.5 average.
The problem is that Moncrief's entire game is an understatement of his multiple skills - wallpaper in a room of Picassos; daisies in a Ming Dynasty vase. You want someone who hangs in the air after his shot, get Dr. J., or if you want a rim-shaking dunkster, get Darryl Dawkins.
Like a pickpocket whose hands flash, but are never really seen by his victims , one second Moncrief is cradling the ball and the next second it's through the basket. His quickness on offense is incredible; his ability to size up a potentially dangerous situation on defense something no coach or assistant can teach.
''I don't think you can take one of Sidney's particular skills and say that this is the thing that makes him great because the man obviously does so many things well,'' explained Bucks' coach Don Nelson. ''After having him with us for four years, I've developed a tendency to just put him out on the floor and take him for granted. It's not hard to do, because basically his consistency is the same every night.
''Some players are always around the ball, and Sidney has those kinds of instincts,'' Nelson continued. ''He always seems to make his average and get his share of loose balls. But if he notices that our other scorers are having an off-night, then he'll increase his own production. Or, if everybody is shooting better than usual, then he'll find some other way to help the club. And his defense is outstanding.''
Physically, the 6 ft. 4 in. Moncrief is not the towering presence so many other NBA players are, yet his muscular arms and shoulders hint at the power and strength that help to compensate for a lack of height. And as for speed, nobody in the league outruns him on the break, and probably no one has a quicker first step to the basket.
During his senior year at the University of Arkansas, Moncrief was one of the nation's outstanding players, winning All-America honors and being named the Southwest Conference Player of the Year.
When Milwaukee made him its No. 1 pick in the first round of the 1979 college player draft, Sidney envisioned himself as an instant success as a pro. I know this doesn't sound like him, but there were extenuating circumstances.
''I watched a few NBA games on television and to me the league looked soft,'' Moncrief told me after a recent Bucks-Lakers game here. ''Frankly, I didn't see a whole lot of defense being played out there either. Nobody was even trying to guard players who like to pull up suddenly and shoot their jumper. I mean, it looked easy.
''Well, once I got there I found out that it wasn't easy,'' Sidney added. ''For some reason, everybody now seemed bigger and tougher. The defense I couldn't recognize before was now so physical that I could feel it. In college, I was used to driving the lane without getting much in the way of interference. But once I reached the NBA, I learned very quickly that my offense probably was going to disappear completely if I didn't get an outside shot.
''However, once I learned to fire far enough away from the basket so that the defense had to come out and guard me, everything opened up again for me inside. I don't mean it was just like college, but there were lanes open to the basket for me that hadn't been there before. My second year in the league my offense almost doubled.''
Asked to explain what he looked for when he gets the ball in the backcourt and all nine other players are spread out in front of him, Moncrief replied:
''I doubt that I can answer your question the way you expect me to, because I've never really thought about basketball in that way. With me, it's all instinct. I don't bring the ball up court with any preconceived ideas, and the place on the floor where I take my shot more often is determined by what the defense gives me rather than anything I do myself.''
When Moncrief was voted to the NBA's all-league first team last season for the first time along with Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson, it was professional recognition of the highest order. It means that a large group of the nation's sports writers and broadcasters considered Sidney a better guard than more publicized stars such as George Gervin, Gus Williams, and Maurice Cheeks.