When a shot goes up, Michael Ruffin is amused by the players who look at the rim. "If you do that, you're only going to get the rebounds that come in your area," said Ruffin, a 6-foot-8 forward who signed as a free agent with the Washington Wizards over the summer.

While other players stare and wait for the ball to drop, Ruffin is trying to create some space under the basket. He's watching the trajectory of the ball or looking to find someone to lean on for leverage, any advantage he can get to grab the ball first.

Ruffin has studied some of the best rebounders, from Dennis Rodman to Ben Wallace, and picked up their tendencies while adding some of his own.

"It's something that I focus in on and concentrate on," Ruffin said.

Ruffin has impressed Coach Eddie Jordan in training camp and the preseason with his ability to battle inside and fight for rebounds. He is the team's leading rebounder after three preseason games, averaging 6.7 in just 18 minutes per game. Brendan Haywood and Jarvis Hayes are second in rebounding at 6.3, but they average 28 minutes and 32 minutes per game, respectively.

"He's relentless on the glass. I'm not a stats man but one of the coaches said, 'Geez, look at how many rebounds he has in the little minutes,' " Jordan said about Ruffin, who is averaging a staggering 17.8 rebounds per 48 minutes.

Ruffin proved that he could get rough the first day of training camp, when he caught an elbow from Samaki Walker, got stitches and a bandage under his left eye and went back to work. Ruffin missed 41 games with an abdominal strain last season with the Utah Jazz. In a strange twist, he has been given an opportunity to play with the Wizards because Etan Thomas is out with a similar injury to his abdomen.

"His is not as serious as the one I had last year but you have to be patient with that injury. The more you rush, the further it's going to set you back," Ruffin said. "That's part of what a team is."

Early Return for Blake?

Steve Blake was expected to miss the first month of the regular season after having surgery to remove a chipped bone in his right ankle, but he said that he isn't ruling out a return before December.

"I'm hoping, it'll be four or five more weeks," Blake said yesterday. "I feel good. I definitely feel the progression."

The 6-3 point guard averaged 5.9 points and 2.8 assists as a rookie last season for the Wizards and said it shouldn't be a difficult adjustment when he returns. "I know the offense so well, I'll be able to step right in," he said.

A former standout at Maryland, Blake had surgery in late September but was sporting black sneakers at the team scrimmage at MCI Center. He still can't run and needs to wear a protective boot when walking around in street clothes, but he expects to have it removed for good this week. . . .

After three games, the Wizards lead the league in steals per game (12.3) and rank second in points per game (105.7), rebounds per game (47.3) and blocks (7.3). They are also 28th in scoring defense (108 points per game). . . .

The Wizards had just 12 players for their open scrimmage, with Gilbert Arenas (right ankle), Larry Hughes (left knee), Kwame Brown (foot surgery), Thomas and Blake all sitting because of injuries. "With 12 healthy guys, you saw a lot of tired guys out there with no substitutions," Jordan said. . . .

Billy Thomas made a half-court shot after the scrimmage and won a pair of airline tickets for a fan in attendance. "I like to think of myself as a people person," Thomas said.