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Wizards look for fresh start

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - When the Washington Wizards gather in their MCI Center locker room before tonight's game with the Toronto Raptors, they'll likely need game programs and introductions to know who is lining up with whom.

In the wake of Thursday's gigantic eight-player deal that sent forward Juwan Howard and centers Calvin Booth and Obinna Ekezie to Dallas, the Wizards will have to assimilate four new bodies into the mix, with about two months to go in the season.

How long those bodies remain with the club will be an open question the rest of the way.

"We are doing the kinds of things necessary not only to help us now, but to start making moves toward solidifying ourselves for the future," said Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton. "Even though you hate losing a guy of Juwan's caliber, he does give us an opportunity to have some flexibility."

All four active players (forwards Christian Laettner and Loy Vaught and guards Courtney Alexander and Hubert Davis) coming from the Mavericks will be expected to contribute immediately, but, since Washington has only Jahidi White and Popeye Jones as legitimate big-man threats after three front-court players departed in the deal, Laettner and Vaught should be on more prominent display.

Laettner, the biggest name coming east, may be in the starting lineup tonight in Howard's power forward position, though he can play center. Laettner, who led Duke to two national titles and was the only collegiate member of the 1992 Dream Team Olympic squad, went third overall to Minnesota in the 1992 draft and was named to the league's All-Rookie team that year. He was named to the All-Star team in 1997.

However, Laettner, 31, who suffered a knee injury that forced him to miss most of the 1998-99 season, has seen his numbers and minutes tail off substantially over the past five seasons. He was sharing time at center in Dallas with Shawn Bradley, and had started 35 of 53 games while averaging career lows of 7.5 points and four rebounds.

The Wizards will be Laettner's fifth club, and he has gained a reputation as a bit of a malcontent. He is in the final year of his contract, and Michael Jordan, Washington's president of basketball operations, said his inclusion in the trade was largely to make it work financially, given the size of Howard's contract (more than $15 million a year, the league's fifth highest).

"We know Christian Laettner. We know what he can do," Jordan said. "Hopefully, he can come in with a positive attitude. It's hard going from where he was to what he's coming to, but hopefully he'll make the most of it."

Vaught, 31, a member of Michigan's 1989 NCAA title team, has spent most of his checkered NBA career with the Los Angeles Clippers. He is that franchise's all-time leading rebounder.

Slowed since undergoing spinal surgery three years ago, Vaught was averaging 3.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in about 10 minutes a game. Vaught, whose minutes should increase in Washington, is under contract for two more years.

Davis, 29, is a career 44 percent three-point shooter, and will likely back up Mitch Richmond at the shooting-guard and small-forward positions. The 6-foot-5 guard played his first four years in New York after graduating from North Carolina in 1992.

The jewel of the deal is Alexander, a 6-5 guard from Fresno State who went 13th in June's draft and was dealt to Dallas on draft day by Orlando. Alexander, who began his collegiate career at Virginia before transferring to Fresno for the 1998-99 season, was coveted by Jordan last summer, but the Wizards had traded away their first-round draft choice.

Jordan said he envisions Alexander playing at either guard slot or at small forward, and the 22-year-old could emerge as the long-term replacement for either Richmond or point guard Rod Strickland, who will likely be bought out of the final year of his contract at the end of the season, if he isn't waived before.

"He [Alexander] was a lottery pick last year who hasn't been given an opportunity to play within Dallas' system because of [guard Michael] Finley and Davis," Jordan said.

"And Nellie [Dallas coach-general manager Don Nelson] is more of a veteran coach, so we're hoping that when he comes here, where he'll have more of an opportunity to play more than he did in Dallas, we'll see some promising things coming from Alexander.

"He's a lottery pick and we didn't have a lottery pick last year, so we ended up with one even though we had to go through a transaction to get it."

The fifth player in the deal, 6-9 rookie forward Etan Thomas, was taken just ahead of Alexander in the June draft. He has been on the injured list all season with an ailing toe and isn't expected to play the rest of the season, though Jordan said he considers him a "big-time prospect."

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