A starting forward position with the Washington Wizards was supposed to be a two-man battle between Jarvis Hayes and Jared Jeffries.

The thought was that with Antawn Jamison, who can play either small forward or power forward, Coach Eddie Jordan would tinker with his preseason lineup, alternating with the scoring punch of the shifty Hayes or the pressure defense of the long and lean Jeffries. But after Jordan started Hayes in the preseason opener, Hayes hasn't given Jeffries the chance to take his spot.

"Jarvis is playing so well that the forwards are Jarvis and Antawn," Jordan said yesterday.

"He's forcing me to keep him on the floor and that's what training camp, preseason is about. Jarvis's ability to score and to defend, his toughness and rebounding -- especially on the defensive end -- just the fact that he's a heck of a scoring weapon, it means a lot."

Hayes has led the Wizards in scoring the past two games, averaging 27 points on 20 of 45 shooting (44 percent) and 9.5 rebounds in those contests. He scored 31 points against the Charlotte Bobcats on Thursday, with Jordan calling plays for him in crucial situations. "He looks so confident out there," Jordan said of Hayes, a second-year swingman. "It's night and day from last year.

His facial expressions, his demeanor and approach is much more professional. Last year, he seemed like a happy kid in the candy store every day. This year, he still has the same gleam in his eye but he has a more serious approach."

Hayes said his rookie year was "tough" because he played 70 games, which nearly matched his total in three seasons of college basketball at Georgia. "Last year, I didn't know what to expect. New system, new coach. It was difficult at times," Hayes said. "Right now, I think I'm past that and it's showing."

Hayes knew that he had to be in better shape to handle the rigors of an 82-game season, so he decided to change his diet. At the recommendation of center Brendan Haywood, Hayes hired Will Simpkins as his personal chef. Simpkins, known to the players simply as "Chef Will," provides prepared meals for Haywood, Hayes and guard Juan Dixon.

"I've never eaten right in my life," Hayes said. "He does a good job. Right now, I'm in shape. I feel good. I'm playing more. I'm more consistent. I'm more prepared than I was last year."

Thomas Still Ailing

Reserve forward Etan Thomas said the abdominal strain that caused him to miss the first three preseason games should not keep him from missing the season opener on Nov. 3, but Thomas couldn't predict when he will return to action. "Hard to estimate right now," said Thomas, who averaged 8.9 points and 6.7 rebounds last season. "I don't want to see something that continues throughout the season. If I do it right, treat it right and come back at the pace I want to come back, it won't be a problem at all."

Thomas has gradually progressed to riding a stationary bike and shooting jumpers. His injury isn't as severe as the muscle strain that sidelined Gilbert Arenas for 27 games last season. But Arenas, who had some unproductive games after he returned earlier than he should have, has advised Thomas to take his time while recovering. "Don't do what I did," Arenas told him.

Thomas said he felt pain in his midsection early in training camp but tried to play through it. "I thought I'd get better. I got worse, then I stopped," he said. Thomas, a native of Tulsa, said he would like to return in time for the Wizards to play the Lakers in Oklahoma City on Oct. 28. "Oh yeah, that's home," Thomas said. "But you can't get too frustrated with things you can't control." . . .

The Wizards cut forward Jon Smith yesterday, reducing the roster to 17 players with five preseason games remaining. Smith played just three minutes in the preseason, picking up a foul in the Wizards' 126-125 win against the Charlotte Bobcats.

Forward Etan Thomas (abdominal strain) hopes to be better in time to play in the Nov. 3 season opener.