-- In a surprise move, Washington Wizards Coach Doug Collins started Christian Laettner at center in the team's season opener against the Toronto Raptors tonight, and demoted projected starter Brendan Haywood to the third team. Etan Thomas was used as the main backup at center.

Collins had been hinting at a change, expressing concern over the offensive play of Haywood and Thomas over the past few preseason games. That stated, Laettner, a natural power forward, was used only intermittently during Washington's eight preseason games while Haywood was the regular starter and saw extended action.

Haywood averaged 5.6 points and 4.3 rebounds in the preseason to Laettner's 3 points and 2.8 rebounds. However, with Collins's intent to get off to a quick start, he apparently felt more comfortable going with the more seasoned Laettner instead of Haywood, whose struggled at the end of the preseason getting into the offensive flow.

Collins said he went with Laettner because he wanted someone with more experience alongside second-year player Kwame Brown early in the season.

The play of the team's young big men is what could make or break the Wizards, Collins has said several times. Two recent moves -- one being Haywood's benching in favor of Laettner -- seems to indicate that the coaching staff does not feel all of the younger big men are progressing like it would like.

The other signal came Monday, when the Wizards opted to keep Yugoslavian center Ratko Varda, who did not play in the preseason, and released small forward Bobby Simmons. Varda, who is on the injured list with hamstring and back problems, is the fourth center on the roster. Center Jahidi White, recovering from offseason knee surgery, also is on the IL.

Seats Available

The Wizards have not sold out Thursday night's home opener against the Boston Celtics, with "plenty" of available seats remaining. The potential for a non-sellout would snap a string of 41 consecutive home sellouts, as Washington filled the MCI Center for all of its home games last season.

Washington will have a pumpkin-carving contest before Thursday's game. Those who enter a pumpkin will receive a ticket to a future game. The winner will be awarded a personal computer.