In separate moves that locked up one talented young player for another year and secured financial flexibility for next summer at the expense of another, the Washington Wizards yesterday picked up the fourth-year option on forward Jared Jeffries, but not on guard Juan Dixon.
The Wizards let Jeffries know that he is part of their plans by electing to pay him $2.03 million next season. Dixon, on the other hand, will become a free agent at the end of the season. Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' president of basketball operations, said that if the team had taken the $1.73 million option on Dixon it could have hampered the team's ability to keep several free agents.
Starting shooting guard Larry Hughes will be an unrestricted free agent. Starting big men Kwame Brown and Brendan Haywood and backup point guard Steve Blake will be restricted free agents next summer. Grunfeld said the decision to pass on Dixon's option was strictly business.
"We like both players," he said. "Jared has some size to him and he has shown some progress, as has Juan. But this doesn't mean that down the road, Juan isn't a part of the organization. We just have a lot of money tied up in the guard position and this gives us more flexibility."
The Wizards have until today to extend the contracts of Brown and Haywood but, while Grunfeld has spoken to their representatives, nothing was imminent as of yesterday afternoon. The Wizards appear willing to let the deadline expire, letting Brown and Haywood set their own value as restricted free agents next summer.
Jeffries played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.7 points and 5.2 rebounds after missing most of his rookie season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament. He said he was never worried about the team picking up his option, even though the team waited until the day before the deadline.
"I'm happy," Jeffries said when reached by telephone last night. "Any time you get a guarantee in this league, it's a good thing. I think we're going in the right direction. We have a young team and if you keep parts together, it's only going to get better. I want to continue to improve and solidify myself as a part of the team for a long time."
This is the latest setback for Dixon, who averaged a career-high 9.4 points and started 16 games last season. He was left exposed to the Charlotte Bobcats for the expansion draft and the Wizards signed guard Anthony Peeler as a free agent during the summer.
Dixon, a Baltimore native and former star at Maryland, played solidly in the preseason and earned the praise of Coach Eddie Jordan, averaging 9.9 points, 2.3 assists and 1.75 steals. He will be part of a back-court logjam when Blake returns, but asked recently about Dixon, Jordan said, "As soon as someone says he's in a bad position, he usually works it out in a good way." Dixon didn't return phone calls yesterday.
The Wizards cut guards Gerald Fitch and Billy Thomas, securing the 15th and final roster spot for former Maryland star Laron Profit. Profit returns to the franchise where his career began in 1999.
"I was thinking, if it's an open competition, I don't see why I can't win. That was my attitude," said Profit, who spent two years with the Wizards before being traded to Orlando for Haywood in 2001.
Profit hasn't been back in the NBA since the Magic cut him later that year, playing last season in China. "If you would've asked me if I'd be in this situation a year ago, I would've said you're crazy," Profit said.
Profit made the team, but Fitch's picture and bio made it into the Wizards' media guide. Fitch played in seven preseason games, averaging 3.1 points and 1 assist per game. Thomas averaged 4.1 points per game in seven preseason contests. Profit's numbers in the preseason were only slightly better -- 4.7 points, 1.9 rebounds -- but the Wizards decided to go with the experience and versatility of the 6-5 swingman.
"The other two guys, Billy Thomas and Gerald Fitch, they played the right way. They played hard. All three had something to offer but . . . maybe Laron was the best right now," Jordan said. "He knows the NBA. He's got a lot of confidence on the floor and he has a good feel for the game."