Washington Wizards center Ike Austin practiced for the first time in several days yesterday, and Coach Gar Heard is hopeful he'll be able to play in Tuesday's season opener against Atlanta at MCI Center.

Austin played in the preseason opener against the Los Angeles Lakers but missed the last five games with a strained left hip flexor. He stuck to no-contact and shooting drills during a light practice at MCI Center.

"If he doesn't reinjure that thing, I think he'll be ready to go," Heard said. The 6-foot-10, 270-pound Austin gives the Wizards their first legitimate force in years at center. Austin said he's continuing his conditioning work and will take regular therapy through the weekend. He said he hopes to play Tuesday.

"I'm taking it day-by-day [because] I don't want to reinjure it again," Austin said. "I just want to take it easy and take it slow.

"It's very disappointing. I believed I worked hard this [summer] to get where I am now, and it really is disappointing."

If Austin can't play, Heard said Jahidi White would start at center. The slimmed-down White has been one of the team's pleasant surprises so far this year. He had 11 points and five rebounds in Thursday's 102-101 win over Boston and has played well throughout the preseason. Several New York Knicks raved about how much of a presence the former Georgetown Hoya had become in the paint after Monday's game against the Wizards.

"He's been our best rebounder and our best shot blocker," Heard said. "He's had a great preseason, but that's what it was -- a preseason."

Rod Strickland missed practice yesterday to attend his trial on charges of driving while under the influence. The trial kept Strickland out of the last two exhibition games.

Missing starters have caused problems for the Wizards throughout the preseason. The starting five appears likely to be Austin, Strickland, Juwan Howard, Mitch Richmond and Aaron Williams or Michael Smith. However, injuries and other troubles have prevented the top five from starting even one game together.

Howard and Smith are the only players to have started every preseason game. Heard has said that a fast start will be important, although the lack of playing time together will hurt the Wizards' chemistry and might slow them early.

"I have no idea what type of team I have, in terms of the starting lineup," Heard said.

Injuries have been and will remain a question for the Wizards right up until the start of Tuesday's game. Laron Profit jammed his thumb in Thursday's game, and a strained right hamstring kept Richmond out of exhibition games until Wednesday. Lorenzo Williams missed all of last season with stress fractures in both feet and has spent the preseason rehabilitating from offseason knee surgery.

Williams, however, scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 19 minutes against Boston in his debut Thursday. The 6-9, 230-pound Williams would give the Wizards more maneuverability under the basket.