The psyche of an NBA sharpshooter often is as fragile as a teacup. If something is out of sync--his playing time or a string of bad games--he can find himself in at least a temporary slump.

Washington Wizards small forward Tracy Murray knows that all too well. Regarded as one of the league's more dangerous perimeter shooting threats, Murray struggled through most of last season. He registered career lows in games played and shooting percentage, and his confidence dipped accordingly.

He can admit it now because he's feeling good about his game again. Murray has had a strong preseason and, in hindsight, knows how one negative can compound itself and ruin a season.

"One thing led to another," Murray said of last year's 50-game season. "Not only physically did I go through some things, but mentally I really went through it. I would get hurt and then, when I was healthy, I came back [and] I didn't know what my role was going to be. So many other people had been worked into the equation that when I got my turn, it felt foreign to be on the floor."

Murray sprained both ankles early, then missed six games with a sprained right toe before missing the final seven games with a strained right hip. In between injuries, he shot a career-worst 35 percent and scored 6.5 points per game--his lowest total since his rookie season.

All this after a 1997-1998 season in which he averaged 15.1 points and was touted as one of the best sixth men in the NBA.

Frustrated, Murray blamed everything from playing time to lifting too many weights. At one point in the season, his father flew in from Los Angeles to comfort him. Bernie Bickerstaff, then the Wizards' coach, urged Murray to shoot his way out of his slump, but when Murray shot he missed.

When Gar Heard was hired as coach last summer, he singled out Murray as someone he wanted to be an integral part of the team. Murray got the message and immediately regained confidence in his abilities.

"When I talked to him this summer, I told him he's going to play behind Juwan Howard, he's going to get minutes and that he has to perform for us," Heard said. "With him, the important thing is knowing that he is going to play. He has to know that every game he's going to play, and that if he's playing well he's going to stay on the floor."

Murray said: "That gave me a lot of confidence to have a coach come into a situation where he's under a lot of pressure to win and to throw my name out there. That means he believes in what I can do. That's a big shot of confidence.

"Now I've got to go out and make him look good."

This preseason, Murray's playing time has been consistent and he has performed well. He scored 20 points in an 89-79 loss to the New York Knicks on Tuesday night, making 4 of 6 three-point shots. He has averaged slightly more than 10 points and 17 minutes in the Wizards' four preseason games.

"The main thing is I'm healthy," Murray said. "My teammates deserve a lot of credit, too. They're seeing me when I'm open and hitting me on the move. I'm not going to blow by anybody, but I can get by people and get my shot off when I'm on the move.

"I know now that all I can do is play to the best of my ability. Some nights it's not going to be there and I'm going to be off. I've got to fight through it and keep on playing."

Wizards Notes: Point guard Rod Strickland was excused from practice yesterday so he could return to Washington to meet with legal counsel. Strickland was scheduled to stand trial Wednesday on drunken driving charges stemming from an arrest last April. If convicted on counts of repeat DUI, reckless driving and failing to exhibit a driving permit, Strickland could face up to 15 months in jail and several thousand dollars in fines. . . .

Shooting guard Mitch Richmond, who has been out since the third day of training camp with a strained right hamstring, could get his first preseason minutes Wednesday night here against the Boston Celtics. Heard said he will leave the decision up to Richmond. If Richmond decides to play, Heard said, he would use him in four- to five-minute increments. . . .

X-rays on center Ike Austin's left hip were negative. The injury remains classified as a strain. . . . Power forward Aaron Williams (bruised right thigh) is doubtful to play against Boston.