As the NBA free agency period began at midnight last night, Detroit's Grant Hill and San Antonio's Tim Duncan headlined a lengthy list of players who could be changing teams. Along with Hill and Duncan, Toronto Raptors swingman Tracy McGrady, Charlotte guard Eddie Jones and Portland forward Brian Grant are expected to be the most coveted free agents.

The Orlando Magic has cleared more than $20 million in salary-cap space and is believed to be the leading candidate for Duncan and either Hill or McGrady. All might re-sign with their current teams, although McGrady has said he probably will not return to Toronto.

The Chicago Bulls are roughly $18 million under the cap and also will be a major player in free agency. McGrady, Indiana's Jalen Rose and Milwaukee's Tim Thomas have been mentioned as players they will pursue.

Rose is not the only free agent among the top players for the Eastern Conference champion Indiana Pacers. Reggie Miller, Austin Croshere, Rik Smits and Mark Jackson are expected to re-sign, but a source said the Detroit Pistons might make a move for Rose, who grew up in Detroit and played for the University of Michigan.

Other notable free agents include Maurice Taylor, Glen Rice, Toni Kukoc, Rashard Lewis, Cuttino Mobley, Tim Hardaway, Isiah Rider and Derek Anderson.

Teams can negotiate deals with players through July, but no contracts can be completed until Aug. 1.

Because they are over the projected $35.5 million salary cap, the Washington Wizards have only a league-allotted $2.25 million exception to spend on free agents. Teams may split the exception, but Washington probably will use the full amount to lure a player such as Joe Smith, Corliss Williamson, Laphonso Ellis, Kendall Gill, Scott Burrell or Adonal Foyle, among others.

Washington's main focus is re-signing restricted free agent center Jahidi White, who is expected to come back to the Wizards. Other teams have expressed interest, several sources said.

Teams over the salary cap may re-sign their free agents without regard to the salary cap. Since White has played just two seasons with Washington, the Wizards may offer him a starting salary of no more than $3.8 million.

Washington likely will offer White at least a three-year deal, which would average out to more than $4 million. The only way the Wizards could compete with higher bids is to add more years and incentives. White started 59 games and averaged 7.1 points and 6.9 rebounds.

Wizards President of Basketball Operations Michael Jordan said Washington also would like to re-sign backup point guard Chris Whitney, who stirred some interest around the league.

Yet, with a glut of talented free-agent point guards--Miami's Hardaway and Anthony Carter, Indiana's Jackson, Utah's Howard Eisley and Jacque Vaughn, Portland's Greg Anthony, Sacramento's Tony Delk, Orlando's Chucky Atkins and San Antonio's Antonio Daniels--Whitney might find the money pool shallow outside of Washington.

The Wizards are expected to re-sign second-year guard Laron Profit and forward Don Reid to minimum-salary contracts, possibly for multiple years. Reid joined the team late in the season after being waived by Detroit.

"If it's economically feasible, we would like to keep those players," Jordan said.

Wizards forward Aaron Williams opted out of his contract, creating the possibility that Washington might re-sign versatile forward Gerard King for a minimum salary. Other players who might be available for a minimum salary include centers Dickey Simpkins and Duane Causwell; forwards Johnny Newman, Chucky Brown and Monty Williams; and point guard Sherman Douglas. However, the Wizards likely will wait to sign anyone until well into the process to see whether a higher-profile free agent fails to land the contracts he seeks.

Washington also will be exploring trades, Jordan said. Ideally, the Wizards would like to work a sign-and-trade deal for Hill or McGrady, in which it could move one of its high-salaried veterans--Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland or Mitch Richmond--in return. But the Wizards probably won't find teams willing to take on such salaries, several sources said.

"We have some constants on this team that will be difficult to move," Jordan said. "Then again, there are some that are not."

Wizards reserves Tracy Murray and Ike Austin want out, and Washington is expected to try to accommodate them. Austin, who is owed $11 million over the next two seasons, could be hard to move.

On another note, if the Indiana Pacers hire Isiah Thomas as their coach, sources have indicated that he probably will ask the Wizards for permission to interview Darrell Walker for an assistant's job. Walker is the Wizards' director of player personnel and former interim coach.

A league source said the Wizards would allow Walker to speak to Indiana and would not stand in his way if he wanted to leave. The Pacers are expected to name Thomas or assistant coach Rick Carlisle next week to replace Larry Bird, who resigned.

Walker has declined to comment on the issue, but he has said that at some point he would like to resume a coaching career. He finished 15-23 after taking over for Gar Heard, who was fired Jan. 29.

When Thomas was part owner and vice president of the Toronto Raptors from 1994-1997, he hired Walker as an assistant coach in 1995. On April 22, 1996, Walker was elevated to head coach; he resigned Feb. 13, 1998.

When Thomas bought the Continental Basketball Association last season, he hired Walker to coach the Rockford Lightning. Washington hired Walker from Rockford after Heard was fired.

Let Freedom Ring

Beginning today, NBA free agents can shop their services with any team, but can't sign with another team until Aug. 1. Here is a look at the top free agents by position.

* Point guard: Antonio Daniels (San Antonio), Howard Eisley (Utah), Tim Hardaway (Miami), Mark Jackson (Indiana), Avery Johnson (San Antonio).

* Shooting guard: Kendall Gill (New Jersey), Eddie Jones (Charlotte), Reggie Miller (Indiana), Ron Mercer (Orlando).

* Small forward: Grant Hill (Detroit), Tracy McGrady (Toronto), Jalen Rose (Indiana), Austin Croshere (Indiana), Glen Rice (L.A. Lakers), Tim Thomas (Milwaukee), Rashard Lewis (Seattle).

* Power forward: Tim Duncan (San Antonio), Brian Grant (Portland), Joe Smith (Minnesota), Maurice Taylor (L.A. Clippers).

* Center: R-Jahidi White (Washington).

r-restricted free agent