Forward Tracy Murray is healthy and has his shooting touch back. Center Jahidi White is smaller in girth and better as a basketball player. Point guard Chris Whitney is his old reliable self.
Combined with two solid draft picks and a multitude of talented free agents trying to earn NBA contracts, the Washington Wizards boast depth at every position. The second unit has the potential to pull out victories in games when the starters just don't have it, some players said.
"You look at our roster and we are real deep," said Murray, the backup to small forward Juwan Howard. "That is so important, especially with what we're trying to do. Coach Heard is trying to reduce some starters' minutes and late in the season, when some of those starters might be hurt or a little broken down, we'll be able to provide that insurance that it takes to get to the playoffs."
It was Washington's reserves that salvaged an 88-84 preseason victory over the Los Angeles Lakers Wednesday night in Kansas City, Mo. Whitney spearheaded a 17-point, fourth-quarter comeback, scoring 12 points off the bench.
Back-court mates Reggie Jordan and Laron Profit, both camp invitees, paired with Whitney in a three-guard set to form a dragnet defense that the Lakers' backups could not penetrate. Washington outscored the Lakers 28-7 in the fourth period.
The play of the backups was encouraging, even though that of the starters was not, Heard said. Heard also likes the fact that his talented reserves have forced the starters to work each day during practice, something that has not always been the case with this organization.
"We're competing," Jordan said. "This is the most competitive camp I've ever been in. Guys are trying to get jobs and guys are trying to prove themselves against the starters. This is what it's all about. There's a lot of hungry guys here and we all know, when we're hungry you've got to do what it takes to eat."
Rookie guard Richard Hamilton, who will come off the bench once Mitch Richmond overcomes his strained right hamstring, has looked strong all preseason. Heard said he wants to curtail Richmond's minutes and Hamilton, along with either Jordan, Profit or James Collins, adds insurance at shooting guard.
Either Aaron Williams or Michael Smith, Washington's top free agent signees, should prove more than adequate at backup power forward. Center Calvin Booth, a second-round draft pick, also showed improvement during the victory over Los Angeles.
Whitney is solid relief for starting point guard Rod Strickland. He also is aware that he is in the final year of his contract and that a good season could translate into a nice contract next year, especially since backup point guards have become premium acquisitions league-wide.
White, General Manager Wes Unseld's pet project for two years, also is in the last year of his contract, and like backup point guards, reserve big men also are in demand.
"That's important, but it's the love of the game and just getting better at it," said White, who led Washington with 12 rebounds and had three blocks against Lakers guard Kobe Bryant--two on dunk attempts. "Everybody wants another contract, but it's just the game that's so important to me."
Free agent forward Gerard King seems on the verge of earning a roster spot. He will have to continue to progress during the exhibition season but at 6 feet 10 with a knack for the ball, he seems to fit into Heard's plans.
One player who seemingly must step up his play is small forward Randell Jackson. He did not play significant minutes against the Lakers and has settled on a perimeter game instead of the slashing role that made him the undrafted free agent surprise of last season.
"Guys are either going to play their way on to this team or play their way off," Heard said.
Wizards Note: The list of wounded Wizards grew by three yesterday as center Austin, Howard and Jackson suffered injuries during practice. Austin incurred an unspecified injury to his left hip and was forced to sit out a portion of practice. It is believed to be a muscle-related problem. He will be re-evaluated today.
Howard fell on his back on a drive to the basket and did not finish the final 40 minutes of practice. He did walk around and appeared to be okay. Jackson was nursing a sore left knee. Williams continues to suffer from back spasms but said he would try and play through the discomfort.
It has yet to be determined if Austin, Howard or Jackson will participate in tonight's public scrimmage at MCI Center. Richmond, who has not practiced in a week because of a strained right hamstring, is not expected to participate in the scrimmage. The scrimmage is scheduled to start at 7 and will consist of four, eight-minute quarters. Doors will open at 5:30.
CAPTION: With defenders such as Michael Smith, here defending against Laker Kobe Bryant on Wednesday night, the Wizards could be poised for a playoff run.