- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

That Richard Hamilton was named the Washington Wizards' first NBA Player of the Week since April 1997 speaks volumes about his maturation. After all, earlier in the season his coach banished him to the bench for coasting on defense.

No book, however, can say more about the improvement of Hamilton than the respect accorded to him these days by Michael Jordan.

When Jordan decided to end his three-year retirement and play for the Wizards, there was speculation he would hinder the growth of young players like Hamilton, a natural shooting guard.

Instead, Jordan has watched Hamilton evolve into a potential All-Star, and he doesn't mind that the Wizards have begun to look to Hamilton and not Jordan to take over games in crucial stretches. The third-year guard averaged 28.5 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists in the last four games of the team's six-game winning streak.

"That was my past life. I'm more into the teaching mode; I'm more of a sidekick to young guys who want to move up that ladder, and that's Rip," Jordan said yesterday. "He wants to move up that ladder, and I'm not going to stand in his way. I think he can be there five or six years down the road when I'm upstairs watching. And hopefully he can pass on the traits that I have tried to pass on to him while I'm upstairs.

"That's the whole thing that I'm about," Jordan continued. "I knew I was going to take criticism when I came back, but what I'm seeing right now is exactly what I wanted to see happen, for this team to grow and be independent of Michael Jordan."

Hamilton is a big part of that.

In the final two months of last season after the Wizards traded Juwan Howard to the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 22 it quickly became clear Hamilton was capable of scoring plenty of points. Seven of the 10 times Hamilton hit the 30-point mark came after the deal, including two games of 40-plus.

Of course, that was for a team that won just 19 games and was playing out the string.

For whatever reason, Hamilton came back to the Wizards thinking he didn't have to play any defense, that all he needed to do was score. He quickly found out that approach doesn't work with coach Doug Collins. Following a particularly poor showing in a loss to Golden State in the season's sixth game, Hamilton found himself coming off the bench for the next four.

Collins' change didn't sit well with Hamilton, the first Wizard since Chris Webber to be named player of the week. But it triggered something in him that has made him a better all-around player.

"It made me stronger," said Hamilton, who admits he patterns his game after former San Antonio Spurs Hall of Famer George Gervin. "It was just a thing of just being patient and hoping that everything would turn around."

Collins made it clear it wouldn't turn around unless Hamilton began to work on other aspects of his game beside scoring. The coach wanted harder work on the defensive end. And he also wanted a concerted effort from Hamilton to get his teammates involved.

Recently, he has seen just that.

"He is becoming a complete player," Collins said. "Before for Rip to help you win he had to put points on the board. And now he's taking pride in stopping people. He's taking pride in going back and getting some rebounds. He's taking pride in using his quickness to get into gaps and kick out to guys for open shots. He has grown a lot. That was a great honor for him to get player of the week."

Others have noticed and not just people within the Wizards organization.

"He's developing into a very, very good player," Toronto Raptors coach Lenny Wilkens said after Hamilton's 27 points, five rebounds and four assists sent the Raptors to their fourth loss in a row Sunday. "He's so quick. You know that he can score. But the difference in the way he played last year and the way he's playing right now is night and day."

Hamilton's progress has enabled Collins to reduce Jordan's minutes. And it has helped him gain the confidence of younger players, particularly rookies Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown. Because every aspect of Hamilton's game has improved, they don't cringe when Jordan goes to the bench if Hamilton is out there getting everyone involved.

Collins believes Hamilton will be the Wizards' next All-Star.

"The recognition is not stats. Now the team is starting to win some games," Collins said. "They don't recognize losing players; they recognize winning players in this league, whether it be All-Star recognition or that kind of thing. Those things go to players who play on winning teams. And he's playing at an All-Star level right now."

Right now, with the team riding that six-game winning streak and dreaming of its first playoff berth since 1997, individual accomplishments are secondary to team ones.

"It's a great accomplishment," he said of the player of the week award, "but I owe a lot of it to my teammates for helping me get open. But the most important thing is that we're winning. Everybody benefits from that. I'm just happy that we're doing that. The goal is to keep it going."

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