As Josh Howard recovers from torn ACL, other Wizards compete for small forward slot

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 12:37 AM

While his teammates were scrimmaging past the midnight hour on Tuesday, Josh Howard was peddling away on a stationary bike. As they were going over defensive schemes the next day, Howard was on a side court with trainers, stretching and lunging forward on his surgically repaired left leg, and then his right leg. And after each practice, Howard has taken the floor to shoot jumpers.

He is moving around pretty well - with no limp and without a brace - only six months after undergoing surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament he tore in only his fourth game after joining the Washington Wizards in a trade deadline deal with Dallas.

"It feels good," said Howard, a seven-year veteran small forward, "but I haven't done any contact stuff, so I can't just throw myself out there and expect to do things I did in the past. It's just a process."

Howard re-signed with Washington on a one-year, incentive-laden contract after the team refused to pick up his $11.8 million option and is not expected to come back until at least November.

But Howard, a former all-star, has joined his teammates at George Mason's Patriot Center, and at a campus hotel, so that he could be a part of the action - or possibly scout the competition. Because with Howard sidelined, there is an opportunity for someone to assume the starting small forward position until the feisty competitor returns to battle for the job.

For now, Coach Flip Saunders is expected to lean on Al Thornton and possibly natural shooting guard Nick Young, 7-foot Yi Jianlian and training camp invitee/reclamation project Adam Morrison.

"They have to take advantage of that situation," Saunders said of the players vying for the spot. "They've got to be able to do something. They have got to be able to help, make plays for us, hopefully knock down shots, be able to defend for us."

But even if he decides to go with one of them, Saunders said he might also rely mostly on a three-guard set featuring John Wall, Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich. "It might be those three little guys together. Our back court can be as good as anybody in the league, with our versatility, speed, quickness, defensive ability," Saunders said, adding that none of the players is taller than 6 feet 4, but they all play bigger than their height. "We're going to play a lot of different people and a lot of different combinations."

Thornton will be given the first shot to lose the job, having stepped in for Howard last season until he was later slowed by a groin injury. During his exit interview with Saunders last season, Thornton was told that he needed to get in better shape and play with more consistency and defensive intensity in the upcoming season.

The 6-8 Thornton responded by changing his diet - eliminating all meat except fish - and mixing up his exercise routine to include swimming and boxing. He lost about 20 pounds after tipping the scales at 245 last season.

"That helped me. It's a great opportunity to come in and have a chance to be a starting small forward," said Thornton, who will be a restricted free agent next summer. "That's what I want. I want to come out and re-prove myself and show people that I'm able to play in this league at a really high level."

Saunders said that he has been pleased with Thornton's commitment to arriving in better shape but said that Thornton is still playing through some tightness in his back and trying to grasp a new system. He expects to see Thornton improve surrounded by better playmakers.

"I came in midseason after all the chaos, and it's a fresh start. It's going to be fun," said Thornton, who joined the Wizards are spending 2½ seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers. "I've been here for awhile, and I'm very familiar with the system and that could be to my advantage. It's an opportunity for everybody. At the end of the day, you've got to come out here and prove yourself in camp to be the starter. Even if it's given to me or not, I'm going to approach it the same way."

Young realizes that Wall, Arenas and Hinrich will inhale most of the minutes in the back court, so he hit the gym and added 10 pounds of muscle, mostly to his upper body, in anticipation of playing small forward. Although he feels more comfortable at shooting guard, the 6-7 Young said, "I just want to be out there on the court, any way I can and produce for the team. If he wants me to play small forward, I'll play it. . . . I'm always going to find a role. I always find a way to break through.

"This is my fourth year. I got to step up to the plate, being somewhat of a leader, ready to take off this year. This should be my best ever."

Nothing has been settled through the first few days of training camp, but Howard offered a message to the contestants. "Good luck," Howard said with a chuckle. "That's just a friendly competition, of course. No hard feelings. Of course, I know I'm going to be behind the eight ball, but it's never stopped me from coming out and playing. I've been in this situation before, and I'm going to go out there and play."

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