The Washington Wizards entered the preseason missing three of their top eight players and they wound up winning just three of their eight games. The correlation between the two cannot be ignored, but Coach Eddie Jordan won't use it as an excuse.
While the absence of Kwame Brown (foot surgery), Etan Thomas (abdominal strain) and Steve Blake (ankle surgery) made it difficult for Jordan to determine exactly what sort of team he will have throughout the season, he still was encouraged by what he saw in the past month.
"I thought we've grown to where we should be," Jordan said. "We're trying to play the right way."
Jarvis Hayes started in place of Brown and emerged as the team's leading scorer at 15.4 point per game. Newcomer Antawn Jamison was forced to play major minutes, enabling him to gain a greater grasp of the Princeton offense. Center Brendan Haywood was the only player to start every game, shooting a team-high 57.9 percent and averaging 11.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. And, reserve forward Michael Ruffin filled in nicely for Thomas, finishing second in the NBA in offensive rebounds (3.8 per game) and leading the team in rebounds (7.3 per game) despite playing just 22.6 minutes per game. "I think we found a gem in Michael Ruffin," Jordan said.
Gilbert Arenas's turnovers remained high (3.5) but he was able to balance some of his mistakes by swiping a team-high 2.33 steals per game. The Wizards led the league in steals per game during the preseason at 12, but Jordan was more concerned that his team gave up 98.6 points per game. "I'd like to see us stop the ball from driving in the paint more than I'd like to see us steal the ball," Jordan said. "I'd like it if we'd rebound the ball better, stop the ball better and play post defense better. Steals can be a facade, although I like the idea of getting steals."
The Wizards also appear to have better team chemistry than last season, something that several players repeated -- "We're having fun playing with each other," Arenas said. The camaraderie was apparent after games as the players were able to laugh and joke with one another, win or lose. And, their willingness to support each other came to light during a costly skirmish against the Chicago Bulls, which led to the suspensions of Haywood and Larry Hughes for the season opener.
"We're not happy with the record but we've seen remarkable growth with the team from last year," Hayes said. "That's only going to make us better as the season goes on."
Wizards Notes: Brown's surgically repaired right foot was evaluated again yesterday. The Wizards still expect Brown to return before the end of November. "Kwame's results have shown that he has made very good progress," Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld said in a statement. "He will continue to intensify his rehabilitation program."
This week, Brown was able to work on post-up moves with Haywood and rookie Peter John Ramos. And, showing that he is making steady progress, Blake was able to walk through several offensive sets in practice. . . .
The Wizards didn't make any roster moves yesterday but they could make cuts today. Training camp invitees Gerald Fitch, Billy Thomas and Laron Profit are in the running for the final available roster spot, but sources within the team said none of the three distinguished himself in the preseason.