CELTIC rookie Eric Montross may not be the foundation of a Boston team badly in need of rebuilding. But he definitely is a cornerstone -- a very big cornerstone. Although he doesn't have the flashy moves or star quality of a Shaquille O'Neal, starting center Montross's quieter talents -- and his ability to keep improving them -- are shining ever brighter.
Jumping from the venerable Coach Dean Smith's program at the University of North Carolina (where he helped lead UNC to a national championship in 1993) to a storied National Basketball Association address in Boston, the seven-foot center is taking it all with modesty.
''Of course being from Indiana -- the classic high school basketball state -- then going to North Carolina for Dean Smith, then to Boston -- it's just not all settling in yet,'' Montross says, shaking his closely shaved head and sipping an orange juice after a recent practice. ''Someday I'm going to look back and say, 'Gosh, I really played in some pretty great places.' ''
Montross's performance here in Boston has been a boost to the beleaguered Celtics. The team is in the midst of a major rebuilding effort, made more difficult by the deaths of captain Reggie Lewis and 1986 draft pick Len Bias, who would have helped in the transition from the championship years of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. Montross, along with returning veterans Dee Brown and Dino Radja, are strong hopes for the team's future.
Celtics Coach Chris Ford says Montross, the Celtics' first-round draft choice in 1994, has been a ''pleasant surprise.''
Already getting the most enthusiastic applause from fans as players are introduced at Boston Garden, Montross is scoring points with his coaches for his work ethic, maturity, reliability, self-confidence, and demure style.
''I expected him to be a good center for the future, but he's made a considerable impact in his rookie year,'' Coach Ford says. ''He works hard, has a big body, bangs, and is not afraid to take a beating. He just bounces back.''
Montross has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, his coaches say. At this practice he was under orders to take it easy while recovering from what Ford called two ''cheap shots'' -- elbows to his face from opponents who decided rougher play might move him out of the way.
Montross's statistics reflect his progress. Ford cites his play against all-star center Alonzo Mourning of the Charlotte Hornets. In November, Mourning outscored him 36 points to 4. Two months later, Montross held the scoring edge, 24 to 17. And Ford says the rookie ''made Mourning work for every one of them.''
''I am able to say 'I learned something' after every game -- be it from somebody I played against or a coach,'' Montross says. ''I am gaining confidence in myself in that I can stay in there and, yeah, take some bumps, but bump back some, too.''
The major difference between playing college and pro ball, he says, is that ''I play superstars every night now. In college, only once in a while did you come up against the greats. Now superstars every night -- in the caliber of [Hakeem] Olajuwon, [Patrick] Ewing.''
But he credits his college coach for building his ''basic skills'' and self-confidence. He says he and his family (his father, a lawyer, is also his agent) put much thought and research into which school he would attend. He chose North Carolina because of Dean Smith, who is known for his squeaky-clean program and emphasis on education. Many were surprised that Montross didn't attend Indiana University in his home state or the University of Michigan, where his father and grandfather had played.
''Bobby Knight [Indiana's coach] came after me, but not real hard -- maybe because of his friendship with Dean Smith,'' Montross says. ''Dean Smith was recruiting me pretty hard, and it took me a while to make up my mind, but it really was the best place for me to be.''
Smith says that North Carolina, Duke, Michigan, and Indiana all sought Montross. ''He was highly recruited out of high school, which is sometimes detrimental to a young man,'' Smith says. ''They don't know then that they need to continue to improve.''
That wasn't the case with Montross, Smith says. ''He was extremely conscientious, a very good student, of course. He continued to get better -- got better every year and will continue to get better until he's 28 or 29, in my opinion.''
Montross says playing for Smith made him believe in himself. ''The man understands everything about the game of basketball. There's an aura about him,'' Montross says. ''Players have great respect for him,'' and are totally secure in knowing that ''he is going to make you win. He will find a way to do it.''
Off the court, Montross spends a lot of time with children in challenging circumstances. The evening before, he had gone to Providence, R.I., to help with the Special Olympics.
''You know they have the same dreams and goals that we have. They just have disabilities that we don't have,'' Montross says. ''And for them to participate in organized events, competition -- they ought to have the chance to do it.''
His modesty surfaces. ''It's nothing for me to do this for one evening,'' he says. ''The people who should really be thanked are the ones who work so hard to put these events together. And these kids who have the guts to do that -- it's just an opportunity they all deserve to have, too.''
Smith says Montross was the same ''good guy'' during his college years. Montross gave speeches to youngsters in schools about education and visited kids in a pediatric ward at the University Medical Center every week. ''I don't know how he found time to do everything -- get good grades and play hard in basketball,'' Smith says. ''It was a tremendous experience for me to be his coach. We feel so grateful to have coached him, to have had him.''