Travel pays for Wizards' Thomas

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BOSTON - Of all the trips Etan Thomas has made to Boston, either when he was with Syracuse or with the Washington Wizards, the last one might have been the least necessary but the most important.

Thomas, a 6-foot-10 reserve center, could have taken the recent week off that the Wizards' rookies, young veterans and free agents spent playing in the Reebok Pro Summer League.

Brendan Haywood, whom he will share time with upfront, elected to stay away, while Kwame Brown came to Boston for a couple of days before taking off.

But after missing most of last season with a fractured orbital bone in his left eye, Thomas, whose three-year career has had more stops and starts than a municipal bus on a downtown route, felt Boston was the place for him to be to get his career jump-started again.

"I enjoyed it," said Thomas. "I haven't really played competitive ball since my injury, and it's still healing. So I wanted to come up here and learn the offense and get a jump on things. The coaches have been really positive with me, and I think it's great. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the new coach [Eddie Jordan] and his system. I used it as an opportunity to get more familiarized with basketball."

It's understandable if Thomas feels he needs a reintroduction to the game. His three-year career has been pockmarked with injury. After being drafted 12th overall in 2000 by the Dallas Mavericks, he sat out his rookie season with a toe injury. He came to Washington in the February 2001 trade-deadline deal the next season that sent Juwan Howard to Dallas, and played sporadically.

Last year, Thomas, who was slowed by a training-camp injury, never seemed to earn coach Doug Collins' full trust, alternating between appearances for extended minutes and stretches where he didn't play at all.

The 2002-03 season came to a screeching halt in late February when he caught the elbow of a New Jersey Nets player during a game at MCI Center. Thomas underwent surgery and is still undergoing rehab, which is why he was so interested in getting back on the floor, even in a place where he didn't need to be.

"Sometimes, you can feel restricted and it takes you a while to get over an injury," he said. "That's one of the better things of playing through an injury. You get that confidence to be able to continue to play with it and deal with it. That's one of the things that I tried to use the summer camp for. I just look to the games here to play through it and get comfortable with it."

Like many of the Wizards' young players, who were largely overlooked by Collins, Thomas was thrilled with the hiring of Jordan, and this trip north was as much about letting the new leader know that he can count on him.

Consider the message received.

"Etan showed us leadership, hard work, effort and a physical presence that we were lacking in some games up here," said Jordan. "He showed the willingness to do what he had to for the team. He wasn't worrying about scoring, but if he was in a position to score, he was going to score. He showed us a lot for being here as a veteran, and that's what we asked for."

Thomas' numbers were admittedly modest in Boston as he averaged 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in six games. And while he started all six games, he averaged slightly more than 22 minutes in those six starts, the fewest minutes of the core of players that will be on the Washington roster in the fall.

But Thomas, a solid defender who was twice named Big East Defensive Player of the Year at Syracuse, led the team in blocks during the weeklong summer session, and is looking forward to getting a chance to move forward.

"[Jordan] just told me to keep working," said Thomas. "He was pleased with the progress I've been making. That's good enough for me."

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