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Bullets eye more than postseason Webber: Strickland a key to expectations

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. — MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- There was Chris Webber backed up to the wall, wearing a sly grin as if he had a secret that he couldn't wait to share. The question that had been posed to him was how good the Washington Bullets could be this season, and Webber's response was that of a player who wished the season were beginning today.

"I've been in situations before where you just knew the potential, and you knew you had guys around you willing to work toward reaching it," Webber said. "And that's the way I'm feeling right now."

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And why not? When the Bullets take the court for their first day of training camp this morning at nearby Shepherd College, they'll do so with the expectations of being one of the upper-tier teams in the Eastern Conference when the 1996-97 season begins on Nov. 1 in Orlando. For a team that hasn't made a postseason appearance since 1988, talk of just making the playoffs is suddenly passe.

Players admitted yesterday they have high expectations despite coming off a 39-43 record last season.

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"If everyone stays healthy, I think we have a chance to win 50 or more games and I think -- I know -- we can make the playoffs," Juwan Howard said. "And anything can happen in the playoffs. But first we have to get that experience."

That begins this morning when 17 players will take part in the first of two-a-day practices. The Bullets will hold a public scrimmage next Wednesday at Shepherd College, and will unveil the team a week from today in an exhibition against the Minnesota Timberwolves at George Mason University.

Even before the start of camp, the Bullets had their first casualty. Gheorghe Muresan, winner of the NBA's Most Improved Player award last season, will miss at least the first four days of camp as he recovers from an injured right hip flexor. The injury is not serious and the 7-foot-7 Muresan is expected to report to camp on Monday.

"Over the summer I practiced every day and I woke up one morning and felt a very big pain," said Muresan, who made a brief appearance yesterday. "Right now, it does not feel very good, but in a few days I'll feel better. I'm happy with this team, but I'm unhappy that I'm not ready."

Which means Muresan will miss today's debut of point guard Rod Strickland, the player mainly responsible for the increased expectations. Strickland averaged 18.7 points and 9.6 assists (fourth in the league) last season in Portland. His ability to score and penetrate to the basket has his teammates champing at the bit.

"In my opinion he's one of the top three point guards in the league, he ranks up there with John Stockton and Gary Payton," Howard said. "If we're going to win, we need Rod Strickland on our team. We won't make it without him."

Added Webber: "He's definitely one of the best point guards I've ever played with -- and I haven't played with him yet. It's going to be easier for everybody playing with Rod. I don't think we have to make it fit. He's a perfect fit."

Strickland's teams have never missed the playoffs. It will be up to the Bullets to stay healthy enough to keep up with him. Webber, who had surgery in February to repair a dislocated shoulder, is a question mark. He promised yesterday that the shoulder will not be a problem.

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"Physically, I feel great," Webber said. "I can honestly say I haven't thought about it since the first full week [of playing over the summer]. I've tested it -- it's been bumped, bruised, pulled on and everything. I'm very confident."

Also confident is Howard, who is coming off of what he describes as "one of the most difficult, stressful summers I've ever been through." To quickly recount the summer: Howard, a free agent, left the Bullets to sign with the Miami Heat, only to have that contract voided, clearing the way for him to sign again with Washington. Confused? Howard surely was, but there's nothing like a $100 million contract to help smooth things.

"It was like Law 101 for me and I learned a lot," Howard said. "It's a blessing to come back here to the Washington area. Things happen for a reason and God has blessed me. He didn't want to see me go to Miami. He knows where my heart is at, and he knows where the best place for me is. That's Washington."

Which is all fine with coach Jim Lynam, who also has Tracy Murray, Harvey Grant and Lorenzo Williams on the roster. Along with key returning players, the roster thrills Lynam.

"I think, in this day and age of free agency, it's very difficult in any sport to retain a big part of the team from year to year," Lynam said. "Being able to come back with what we have is a real plus. We have four of our five starters back from last year."

So the pieces are in place. Over the next month it's up to Lynam to get them to mesh.

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"On paper, we look great," Howard said. "But we have to get that continuity together. That's what training camp is all about, jelling together, and I don't think we'll have a problem doing that."

NOTES: Guard Tim Legler, who led the league in three-point field-goal percentage last season, is still recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He will continue his rehabilitation here during training camp, and is hoping for a mid-January return. Former Georgetown forward Jaren Jackson is in camp, as is Clint McDaniel, the starting point guard on Arkansas' 1994 national champions.

Bullets roster

No., Name ............ Pos .. Ht ..... Wt .. College .... Exp

1 Rod Strickland ...... G .. 6-3 ... 185 .. DePaul ....... 8

4 Chris Webber ........ F .. 6-10 .. 250 .. Michigan ..... 3

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5 Juwan Howard ........ F .. 6-9 ... 250 .. Michigan ..... 2

12 Chris Whitney ...... G .. 6-0 ... 170 .. Clemson ...... 3

14 Clint McDaniel ..... G .. 6-4 ... 180 .. Arkansas ..... 1

15 Chris Kingsbury .... G .. 6-5 ... 215 .. Iowa ......... R

20 Ronnie Henderson ... G .. 6-4 ... 205 .. LSU .......... R

22 Matt Fish .......... C .. 6-11 .. 275 .. N.C.-Wilm. ... 2

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23 Tim Legler ......... G .. 6-4 ... 200 .. LaSalle ...... 6

30 Ben Wallace ........ F .. 6-9 ... 240 .. Va. Union .... R

32 Jaren Jackson ...... G .. 6-6 ... 210 .. G'town ....... 6

33 Dwayne Morton .... G/F .. 6-6 ... 195 .. Louisville ... 1

35 Tracy Murray ....... F .. 6-7 ... 228 .. UCLA ......... 4

40 Calbert Cheaney .. G/F .. 6-7 ... 215 .. Indiana ...... 3

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43 Lorenzo Williams ... C .. 6-9 ... 230 .. Stetson ...... 4

44 Harvey Grant ....... F .. 6-9 ... 225 .. Oklahoma ..... 8

50 Ashraf Amaya ....... F .. 6-8 ... 250 .. Southern Ill.. 1

55 Richard Petruska ... C .. 6-11 .. 255 .. UCLA ......... 1

77 Gheorghe Muresan ... C .. 7-7 ... 303 .. Cluj ......... 3

Pub Date: 10/04/96



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