He began figuring out he had a gift when he was in the 8th grade in Macon, Georgia. Jeff Malone was developing the shooting form that would make him famous, sometimes practicing on the playgrounds, and sometimes on the basket in his yard, which happened to be 11 feet tall. "I'd shoot four, five hours a day," he says.

These days the Jazz's newest big-name basketball star is shooting at 10-foot hoops and doing appreciably better, thank you. Eight years into his NBA career, the two-time All-Star is with a contender for the first time. It is an experience Malone seems to enjoy immensely. Wherever he goes he is smiling, knowing full well that he could be the ingredient that takes the Jazz from being a good team to an exceptional one.Malone and Utah appear to be a good match - a proverbial Boy Scout in a city of Boy Scouts. He spent last Thursday driving around Salt Lake, taking in the scenery and "looking for grocery stores and laundromats, so I'll know where to go." He considers Salt Lake a place of nice people and compares their hospitality to Southerners. He's agreeable, unselfish and donates his time to anti-drug causes. And despite averaging 20 points a game for his career, he downplays his role in what is should be the best season yet for the Jazz.

"Two or three years ago when Atlanta got Moses (Malone) and Reggie (Theus), everyone thought they would win the championship," he warns, "and nothing happened."

But championship or not, when Malone is on the court, "nothing" isn't a word that often comes up.

If you've never heard much of Jeff Malone, there are two reasons. First, he spent the first seven years of his career playing for the lowly Washington Bullets, which is like working in a New York dinner theater: big market, small-time operation. In his time there, the Bullets never finished better than 12 games out of first place in the Atlantic Division.

Second, is that on the list of famous Malone's in the NBA, he ranks a distant third, behind Atlanta's Moses and Utah's Karl. One is the grandaddy of active NBA centers, who has been a national figure since he was 19. The other is the famous Mailman, he of the hammer dunk and the body by Adonis.

"People ask me if I'm Karl or Moses. I say, 'No, those are big guys. I'm just a little guy,"' he says.

In a world where bragging is sometimes the best revenge, Malone is strangely modest. "I just want to come here and fit into the system," he says.

In Washington he was the system. Drafted in 1983 by the Bullets, he averaged 12 points as a rookie and went up from there, finishing last season with a 24.3 scoring average, 12th best in the league. Last year he also reached a scoring milestone, recording his 10,000th point on a January night in Miami, on a reverse layup in the second quarter. For good measure he poured in 22 points in the third quarter, moving Miami Coach Ron Rothstein to observe, "We couldn't stop him."

Despite his productivity, Malone always seemed to be trade bait. The sorry Bullets always had him on the auction block.

"We didn't have a whole lot of (good) people to trade," explains Malone. "When you want to get someone to build your team, you have to bring a big name up."

When he finally was dealt last June to the Jazz in a three-way trade, he was in the Atlanta airport awaiting a flight to make an appearance at his alma mater, Mississippi State.

"When I heard it was a call from (Jazz Director of Player Development) Scott Layden, I knew what it meant."

What it meant was that Malone now has a stability he's never enjoyed since turning pro. Through his years at Washington he played with an array of guardmates that included Ricky Sobers, Gus Williams, Ennis Whatley, Muggsy Bogues, Michael Adams, Steve Colter and Darrell Walker. Now he is teamed with All-Star John Stockton in the backcourt, and he says he no longer needs to worry about carrying the scoring burden.

"It will be nice not to have to get 25 points every night. Now I can just go out and play my game," he says.

With the Jazz, he is surrounded by talent that should make him more effective - if not as prolific. He provides the Jazz with the off-guard shooting they have needed badly and they provide him with a support system. "I'm elated," says Stockton.

He should be. Though some Jazz players remember Malone tore them up them every time played them, that it isn't totally true. Last year, bogged down by the flu, he got only four points in their first meeting. However, he made up for it by scoring 31 the next time they met. In 1988 he went for 31 against the Jazz and in 1986 got 32.

But now he's on their side, and for once he isn't in jeopardy of being traded. His stops at the local grocery store and laundromat should continue for some time. "I feel good," he says. "I'm thinking positive."

He and everyone else.

Jazz Camp notes: Brett Vroman, Melvin Newbern and Delaney Rudd, Andy Toolson all attended Saturday practice sessions at Westminster College, but none played due to injuries. Toolson, the newest addition to the injuried corps, has a hyperextended knee . . . The preseason begins next Saturday night with a game in Chicago against the Bulls. "One week and it's Hello, Michael Jordan," says Jazz Director of Player Personnel Scott Layden.