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Questions hang in air as Wizards exit camp


WILMINGTON, N.C. - With so many new components to be added to the mix, it's understandable that the Washington Wizards left training camp yesterday with a number of questions to be answered.

Not only is basketball operations chief Michael Jordan making his first sweep through a season in that capacity, but new coach Leonard Hamilton is making his first foray into the NBA after 28 years in the college ranks.

So, as Jordan and Hamilton broke camp a day early yesterday, sending the players on to Memphis for tonight's exhibition opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, they left this picturesque town looking for answers.

"Where we are right now, I'm not real sure I can assess that. And I'm not even trying," said Hamilton after Tuesday's intrasquad scrimmage here. "What I'm trying to do is just worry about the things I can control and that's our efficiency on a consistent basis."

That's not to say that some things weren't accomplished over the eight days the Wizards spent here. According to Jordan and Hamilton, the team received at least a rudimentary introduction to the coach's conditioning plan as well as a peek into his strategy and approach to the game.

"We got the first week out of the way. We got the guys in shape and accustomed to playing the style of basketball that Leonard wants them to play," said Jordan. "Now, it's just a matter of getting them in game situations and how to stay connected and play the type of basketball that Leonard wants them to play and how we want the Wizards to play."

But, coming off a 29-53 campaign and facing a season in which many NBA pundits have them ticketed for the bottom half of the Atlantic Division, if not the cellar, the Wizards head out on their eight-game exhibition schedule with some things to figure out before the Oct. 31 regular-season opener in Orlando.

Most significantly, Jordan and Hamilton will have to figure out how to whittle a preseason roster of 20 - including 16 guaranteed contracts - down to the regular-season limit of 12.

The team cut former Georgia Tech standout Dennis Scott, one of four players who came over from Vancouver in the off-season deal for center Issac Austin, on the second day of camp, and may pare more from the roster after tonight.

Some choices will be easy, or are made so by the facts of NBA life. With their Big Three - guards Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland and forward Juwan Howard - each earning more than $10 million this season, those players are assured of returning.

But, even with their status as team leaders comes questions. Richmond, 35, for instance, will need to prove that last season, the worst of his 12-year career, was just an aberration and not the beginning of a downward slide. And Howard, whose scoring average dropped four points a game last season compared with the previous year, became the target of MCI Center boo-birds and will need to bounce back to form.

The biggest questions, however, surround Strickland, the mercurial point guard who has been accused of being as indifferent as he is talented.

Jordan and Hamilton have been effusive in their praise for Strickland, who suffered a left hamstring strain the second day of camp and has had limited practice.

"For him to go out and execute and call the plays out and read our primary and secondary situations show that he's really been focused and attentive, even though he hasn't been able to participate," said Hamilton.

Said Strickland of the hamstring pull: "It is still nagging. It's not 100 percent. I still have a little ways to go, conditioning-wise. I feel good and I'm getting better as the days go on."

Both Hamilton and Jordan have expressed some concern about the lack of depth at small forward, where there is no returning starter.

At 6 feet 9, Howard has the height and the defensive ability to play the position, but his game is better suited, particularly offensively, to power forward, a position at which the team is well stocked. Richmond, who is 6-5 and 225 pounds and muscular, can fill in at small forward in a pinch, but is not a long-term solution.

Jordan said a rotation might help the small-forward dilemma, but added that he is not averse to making a deal to get a small forward. However, his hands will likely be tied by the fact that the team is well over the salary cap.

Ultimately, the team's biggest question will be how to win back the trust and support of its long-suffering fans.

Jordan's charisma and track record as a player will certainly buy the Wizards some time, but he recognizes that, like the NBA clock, the clock for patience eventually runs out.

"The thing that I want before the first game is for the fans to give us an open shot at trying to change this whole new beginning," said Jordan.

"In some ways, I see myself out in the forefront preaching what I believe is happening. These guys have taken on a different attitude and they're going to play a lot differently. I guess my neck is in the noose, but I have no problem with that. I have total confidence in them."

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