Washington Bullets forward John Williams has been cleared by team physician Steve Haas to begin light practice with the team today, a year and two weeks since his right knee was damaged as he made a move on the Capital Centre basketball court.

Williams, who tore the medial collateral ligament and partially tore the anterior cruciate ligament, was examined yesterday afternoon by Haas and team internist and consultant Herb Singer. He was given the go-ahead after his knee passed the Bullets' required strength tests.

He will not be activated for NBA play before the second week of January, if then.

The 6-foot-9 Williams, who reported Nov. 1 at more than 300 pounds after missing workouts most of the summer, is now under the limit of 275 that management set as a condition under which he'd be cleared to play. No one would say how much under the limit he is.

"I had a hunch it was getting pretty close in there," Bullets General Manager John Nash said. "It depended on what he did over the weekend, to see if he would continue to go in the right direction."

Said Coach Wes Unseld: "We'll work him as much as the doctors say we can work him, just to make his practice faster and more complete. I have to get instructions from them about what I can and can't do. I haven't gotten {to talk to} them yet. I suppose I will by {this} morning."

Williams will continue his three-times-a-week workouts at the Sports Medicine Center in Bethesda, as well as two-a-days with Bullets strength and conditioning coach Dennis Householder. He will wear a brace in practices and games.

The decision to let him practice does not address the situation of the more than $550,000 withheld from Williams since his pay was cut off in the middle of July. Though he was placed on the injured and suspended lists -- the latter to comply with NBA directives clearing the oft-abused injured list -- he will not receive his money until he plays in a game.

Williams, a rising star then early in his fourth pro season, was injured in the waning minutes of a 100-98 loss to Utah on Dec. 2, 1989. The preliminary prognosis had him out three months. He proceeded with on-and-off workouts through last spring, when he requested permission to rehabilitate in his native Los Angeles. But personal problems, including the death of a close friend and a stroke suffered by his father, threw him out of a regular work pattern.

After the Bullets suspended his pay, Williams resumed workouts in Los Angeles, but then didn't report to training camp for a mandatory physical in October. It took the organization a month to agree to terms for his return, but he has dutifully worked out since coming back.

"I've followed the same line I've asked {the media} to take," Unseld said. "I've left him alone. I go to Dennis every once in a while. But I leave John alone. I saw him last week before our game {with Houston} and I said, 'Hey, you're looking good.' And that's it. I started to see some {muscle} definition in him."

It will be at least three weeks before the Bullets consider activating Williams. Then they will proceed day-to-day. When they do activate him, they will have to trade someone or release a player who will nonetheless remain on the payroll, something owner Abe Pollin has been loath to do.

Williams will be allowed to take part in shooting and agility drills, in addition to some half-court work. The Bullets will keep him out of any full-court or contact drills for the time being. That specifically includes end-of-practice scrimmages.

"He can take contact in a drill sense," Nash said. "He could have some light contact. We just don't want him running full court and then have to suddenly stop . . . if they're going to scrimmage he isn't going to be out there."

A healthy Williams, 24, could help alleviate the defensive difficulties the Bullets have experienced for the better part of two seasons. He is their best low-post defender, and without him the Bullets have had to resort to double-teams and traps, things Unseld generally doesn't like to do.

The knee is "at 100 percent for what they're prescribing," Nash said. "He will not be ready within the next three weeks to play. We would hope somewhere thereafter. It could be he would be able to participate in scrimmaging in a week or soon after."