With Jordan sidelined, young players need to fill his shoes

Stepping up

Posted: Friday, March 01, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Washing-ton Wizards coach Doug Collins called Michael Jordan after the game, and they analyzed it player-by-player.

''Michael,'' Collins said, ''we've got the right guy.''

Collins was talking about Kwame Brown, the first high-schooler selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft.

Brown's rookie season has been a disappointment -- he's averaging three points and three rebounds and hasn't played at all in 23 of the Wizards' 56 games. But he was one of many young players who gave a spirited performance on the day Jordan had knee surgery.

The Wizards lost 105-101 to Portland on Wednesday night and have dropped six straight. But the display of hustle and teamwork made it one of the best games the team has played in weeks.

Even Jordan said it ''fun to watch,'' according to Collins.

''That means a lot to me,'' Collins said, ''because when I came here, this was the team I thought I was going to have. I didn't expect Michael to be in the mix. Now we're sort of going back to the drawing board and picking up things on the move.''

Brown, Etan Thomas, Brendan Haywood and Courtney Alexander -- all rookies or second-year players -- will need to grow up in a hurry if the Wizards (27-29) are to stay afloat until Jordan comes back in a few weeks. Like Brown, Alexander hasn't lived up to expectations, failing to gain a spot in the rotation even when Richard Hamilton and Hubert Davis were injured.

''We've had Rip out, Hubert out and now Michael out,'' Collins said he told Alexander. ''This is your third try and seizing the opportunity, so go for it.''

Meanwhile, veterans such as Popeye Jones and Christian Laettner will have to make sure the youthful enthusiasm lasts beyond that first emotional game without Jordan. Locker room leadership is important because there's no hiding the fact that, on paper, the Wizards without Jordan won't scare anybody.

''We're going to try to keep the ship right,'' Jones said. ''They realize what's at stake. They're trying to get their careers started and put themselves on the map.''

Collins has turned this week into an in-season training camp as he worked to retool the offense. The players spent an hour studying tape before Thursday's practice, which ran an extra 15 minutes before the team starting packing for the fight to Chicago for Friday night's game with the Bulls.

''Everything on our team went through Michael and Rip,'' Collins said. ''When we lost Rip, we had to change some things around that we couldn't do. Now Michael's out, so we're trying to take advantage of being able to pass and move the ball.''

The first wave of adjusted schemes worked well against the Trail Blazers. Hamilton scored 31 points and the team had 31 assists. The game was lost at the defensive end, where Portland dominated the offensive boards.

The Wizards played without their top two centers, Jahidi White (shoulder) and Haywood (knee), and both will also miss the Chicago game. That means more playing time again for Brown, who is anxious to test himself against fellow high school draftees Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry.

''See us mix it up,'' Brown said. ''It'll be good for me to get out there against some of my peers and strap it on and see how far they've come along -- and how far I've come along.''

And how far the Wizards can go without MJ.

A day after Jordan's surgery, hockey star Mario Lemieux learned that he might miss the rest of the season because of a right hip injury. Jordan has cited Lemieux's successful comeback to the Pittsburgh Penguins following a 3 1/2-year layoff as a key reason he decided to end his own retirement.



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