- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2000

WILMINGTON, N.C. Felipe Lopez may once have appeared headed for icon status. He may not, however, be good enough to make the Washington Wizards' squad.

It's not that the Wizards are expected to be good they have made few significant changes on a roster that last year produced just 29 wins and finished last in the Atlantic Division. But with Mitch Richmond locked into the starting shooting guard spot and second-year man Richard Hamilton rounding into a very competent reserve, the man who graced the 1994 cover of the Sports Illustrated college basketball preview issue before he ever played a game for St. John's University might not make this roster.

Lopez, the first and only Dominican player to be drafted by an NBA team, was one of the four players acquired by the Wizards from Vancouver in August in exchange for Ike Austin. He was a part of the deal primarily because, even though his contract runs until 2002, the Wizards have the option of not bringing him back this year.

This is a long way removed from 1994, when Lopez was viewed by most as the best high school player in the nation as a senior in the Bronx. At the time, there was much speculation that Lopez would skip college altogether and enter the NBA draft after his senior year. Instead, he chose St. John's. That year he was named All-Big East in a season that saw him score a still-standing freshman record 35 points in a conference game against Syracuse.

Lopez pondered entering the draft after his freshman year, but declined. He stayed the full four years and was drafted No. 24 overall in 1998 by San Antonio, who traded away his draft rights to Vancouver. His best season was as a rookie with Vancouver, where he averaged 9.8 points. And even though he now finds himself fighting for his NBA life on a bad team, Lopez, who is a national hero in the Dominican Republic, has no regrets about the direction his career has taken.

"Being on the cover of Sports Illustrated and all the hype I got was something that was great for me, and something that I'll never forget. But I don't have any regrets about the way things have turned out," Lopez said. "As long as you live, you have the opportunity to get better. You can always get right back into it one way or the other. So you have to keep yourself positive and just work. The good thing is that I have a brand new opportunity in Washington. I just want to come here with a whole different mentality and try to get better, to get recognition and respect from everybody else."

Richmond remembers hearing the hype surrounding Lopez when he was in high school, and he believes that in some way Lopez still may be scared by it.

"It's very rough," Richmond said. "There was a time when they thought he should have come out after his freshman year. A lot of people were real high on him. And then in his senior year he didn't play that well and a lot of people forgot about him. So it has to be hard. There are a lot of players in this league with the ability that he has. Sometimes you just have to get to the right situation."

Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton, formerly the coach of the University of Miami, was one of many college coaches who sought the services of Lopez when he was a high school senior. Hamilton said it is still too early to say whether or not the 24-year-old Lopez will become a star.

"I don't know whether or not you can say it hasn't panned out for him," Hamilton said. "Everybody who comes into the NBA is not going to be an instant success. Sometimes it takes people a period of time to develop their skills. I think with him the cake is still in the oven."

Lopez said he ponders how things might have gone had he worked a little bit harder. But as he has matured, he looks back on milestones in his career and says he wouldn't change a thing.

"I think that maybe I could have put more time into playing basketball, but I'm pretty proud of graduating and things like that," Lopez, who has his degree in hospitality management, said. "You always wish that things could be a little bit different. I would have liked to have won more games. But the whole experience and the whole atmosphere of being in college has helped me be prepared to be in the NBA."

The Wizards have yet to develop a depth chart. But when they do, Lopez will find himself in a dogfight for a job with second-year guard Laron Profit. This situation is not lost on him.

"Right now we're all fighting for spots," Lopez said. "I have to come in and prove myself, and to do that I might have to knock some people down. If that's what it takes, then I have to do that. This is what the league is all about. It's about competition and who is going to make the cut. So I see myself just working hard for minutes and my spot. No one is going to hand it to me."

Notes Point guard Rod Strickland and backup Chris Whitney did not practice yesterday. Strickland suffered a strained right hamstring while Whitney is suffering back spasms. Both are day-to-day. Oft-injured forward Lorenzo Williams is to have arthroscopic surgery today on his right knee.

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