There are no bulging muscles to indicate Washington Wizards forward Michael Smith's ferocity, only his nickname, "Animal," and the nasal strip he wears across his nose, which, from the chin up makes him slightly resemble a middle linebacker.

His high-pitched rebuttals to officials' calls tend to sound like a 9-year-old in the stands begging for cotton candy. Those high-octave yelps are about the only time Smith really says much.

Smith, a five-year NBA veteran in his first season with the Wizards, is so unassuming that when Washington was in search of a power forward after trading Ben Wallace and Terry Davis to Orlando for center Ike Austin last summer, Coach Gar Heard initially said the 6-foot-8 Smith was too small.

After watching the District native average a team-high 8.2 rebounds per game while yielding no ground to any opponent, Heard has categorized Smith, who was acquired as a free agent for two seasons at $4.2 million, as the driving force behind the surging Wizards.

"He's the heart and soul of the team," Heard said. "I thought he was small but I knew he had a big heart and I knew that he played hard. He really plays hard and he's into the game. He gets all the big rebounds. He just does all the dirty work."

During Washington's current three-game winning streak, Smith has averaged just more than 10 rebounds. His energy has been contagious, and teammates say they hope to continue feeding off Smith's play when they face the Houston Rockets Thursday night at Compaq Center.

Should the Wizards win, it would be their first four-game winning streak since the 1997-98 season, when they closed out the season with four victories to finish 42-40.

"It's a good example he sets for this team," starting small forward Juwan Howard said. "He sets the tone. He raises the energy and we feed off him."

Because of his approach, Smith has been Washington's most consistent player. He ranks 25th in the NBA in rebounding, ahead of more heralded players such as the Los Angeles Clippers' Michael Olowokandi, Denver's Raef LaFrentz, Phoenix's Tom Gugliotta, Seattle's Vin Baker and New York's Marcus Camby.

"I try to make fun out of this," said Smith, who boasts a 7.2 career rebounding average and previously played in Sacramento and Vancouver. "It's a job that everybody grew up playing as a hobby. I'm getting paid for it but I'm still keeping it like it's my hobby. I grew up having basketball as a hobby, playing the way I do. Why stop doing things the way I've always done them if I'm having fun?"

Smith has recorded double digits in rebounding nine times this season, including a season-high 15 in a Dec. 11 victory at San Antonio. He pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds in the Wizards' 97-83 victory over Detroit on Tuesday night while matched against the 6-foot-11 Christian Laettner.

Smith has outrebounded New York's Larry Johnson, one of the few power forwards as small as Smith; New Jersey's Keith Van Horn; San Antonio's Tim Duncan; Toronto's Charles Oakley and Wallace in head-to-head matchups.

"He's like Dennis Rodman, and I mean that in a complimentary way," Howard said. "He works hard on both ends of the floor. He rebounds, he plays hard night in and night out. Every night he's got a tough matchup."

Since Smith is the only homegrown product on the team, the former Dunbar star not only has to battle on the court, he also has to listen to local armchair experts, mostly his friends, give their take on the Wizards' fortunes. With the Wizards posting losing streaks of seven and six games this season, that hasn't always been easy.

"I'm not playing for them, I'm playing for this team," Smith said. "They can't tell me what to do. They can't change my game. You can't listen to the outsiders. You just got to do what you're supposed to do, what you know how to do."

One thing Smith has not done is forgotten where he came from. Smith donates 50 tickets to each home game for area youth, who sit in a designated area called "The Animal Zone."

Guard Mitch Richmond played with Smith for four seasons in Sacramento and knew his skills.

"I know what he could do," Richmond said. "All I can say is I told you so."