At the same time Washington Wizards management hailed the Aug. 11 trade that brought center Ike Austin from Orlando, it also bemoaned having to part with up-and-coming forward Ben Wallace, along with three other players. Wizards players felt the same.

"Ben was very valuable for us," forward Tracy Murray said. "He was a high-energy guy. He was a shot blocker who could guard all the tough, big guys. He gave us dunks that energized the crowd and really got us going. It was tough to give him up but you have to move something good to get something good and we got a good big man in return."

The Wizards (1-1), who face Wallace and the Magic (1-1) tonight at MCI Center, also included guards Jeff McInnis and Tim Legler and center-forward Terry Davis in the deal. Wallace was the only one of the four retained by Orlando.

Without Wallace and Davis, Washington had no power forwards. Otis Thorpe had signed with Miami as a free agent and Coach Gar Heard wanted Juwan Howard to play small forward. Concern over the front-court void escalated when free agent targets Samaki Walker and Grant Long signed elsewhere.

But now, power forward has become a deep and talented position for the Wizards. Starter Michael Smith has emerged as the enforcer Wallace was; backup Aaron Williams is the high-flying, ball-hawking shot blocker Wallace was; Gerard King is the offensive low-post threat Wallace was not.

With the trio's combined 18 fouls, flexibility to play center and their varied specialties, a tough loss became a welcomed gain.

"Those guys have been solid," Heard said. "Right now, with them and our guards, we're stronger than we are at the other positions. The good thing about Aaron, Michael and Gerard, they all can play two positions and that's going to help us a lot."

Smith, Williams and King averaged 13.5 rebounds and 19 points combined in Washington's two games. Smith leads the group with 6.5 rebounds per game. King is tops in scoring with an eight-point average. Williams, who missed almost all of preseason with back spasms and a deep right thigh bruise, is averaging 4.5 points and 4.5 rebounds.

"All three of us have a different quality about ourselves," said King, who, at 6 feet 10, is the tallest of the group.

Added Smith, the smallest at 6-8: "We all contribute in our own way."

Wallace, meantime, has averaged just four rebounds and two points per game for the Magic. He has started both games but has played a total of 27 minutes because backups Pat Garrity and Chris Gatling have provided solid efforts, especially on offense.

Williams, who most resembles the muscular Wallace, could see plenty of time against the former Wizard. Playing time for Washington's power forwards will be predicated on matchups, foul trouble and which player is hot.

Eventually, Heard said he would like to shorten his rotation and mainly use Smith and Williams. King will get playing time, Heard said, but his court time will be more situational.

"Not knowing how the minutes will be divided gives us extra motivation to go out and make something happen when we're out there," said Williams. "I don't think any of us mind."

That the Wizards were able to land all three players was nothing short of lucky.

Williams, a seldom-used backup to Vin Baker in Seattle the past two seasons, was signed to a two-year, $2.3 million contract a week after the Austin trade. King was signed to a training camp contract and emerged as the surprise of preseason.

Then Smith became available. He was traded from Vancouver to Orlando as a throw-in as part of the three-team deal that sent rookie Steve Francis to Houston. Then the Magic released Smith because its roster was overstocked.

The Wizards still had a $2 million exception--available for teams over the salary cap to sign a free agent--and used it to sign Smith, a Washington native, to a two-year deal with an option for a third.

"When I found out they signed Mike, even though he played my position I was glad to have him," Williams said. "I knew he was a hard worker from playing against him. All training camp Gerard played great. Playing against each other every day is making us better. It is the deepest position on the team."


Game: vs. Orlando Magic.

Where: MCI Center.

When: 7 p.m.

TV: WBDC-50.

Radio: WTEM-980.

Tickets: Available.

Records: Wizards 1-1, Magic 1-1.

Injuries: Wizards G Reggie Jordan (knee), F Lorenzo Williams (knee), C Calvin Booth (hamstring) are on the injured list; Magic F Armen Gilliam (back), F Anthony Parker (knee), F Derek Strong (tendinitis) are on the injured list.