- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

The Washington Wizards are counting on two players who were mediocre at best during the team's recently completed preseason (2-6) to be key contributors this season.
Christian Laettner and Tyronn Lue are different players with very different backgrounds that look to figure prominently in the Wizards' future, but they'll have to step up their play dramatically when the team begins the regular season Tuesday in New York.
During the preseason, Laettner averaged 5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds. Lue averaged just 4.3 points.
After signing a deal that will pay him $21 million over the next four seasons, Laettner did not have a very good preseason. He appeared slow at the defensive end and had trouble keeping up with other power forwards. This was especially clear in the team's finale when coach Doug Collins played him just 12 minutes in the team's final tuneup Friday against Boston.
The Celtics' Antoine Walker had his way with Laettner, beating him to the basket early and pulling him away from the basket, where he had him at his mercy. Laettner's offense hasn't surfaced either, and this has been a problem for Collins. Collins has said repeatedly that he wants Laettner to relocate the mid-range jump shot that he showcased at Duke and early in his professional career.
"That's a weapon that we have to get Christian using again," Collins said. "That was a nice shot that was hard to defend. Somewhere along the way, Christian abandoned that shot. He's struggling right now. The preseason has been pretty tough on him. But we're counting on him. We have to. Christian has to come through for us this season."
Laettner's high point total during the preseason was just 10 points, and he was just so-so on the boards. But the Wizards don't have many other experienced big men. Kwame Brown, Etan Thomas and the injured Brendan Haywood have never played in a regular-season game. Center Jahidi White is undersized at 6-foot-9 and prone to foul trouble. And Popeye Jones, who had the most consistent preseason of any of Washington's big men, has been injury-prone and can't be counted on every night for much production.
That's why the Wizards wanted to keep Laettner; they knew without him they would be very thin across the front. Sure, Michael Jordan can put up a lot of points on any given night, but you have to have someone down low who can score when the double-team swings to Jordan.
Lue was supposed to come in and challenge incumbent point guard Chris Whitney for the starting job. Lue gained 15 minutes of fame when in last season's NBA Finals he attached himself to Philadelphia's Allen Iverson and made life miserable for the league MVP.
Even though Lue played limited minutes in two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, the Wizards liked the fact that he came from a winning system, and they have high hopes for him. But Lue, whom Collins expects to use significantly when the team presses, has yet to make many ripples in the organization. Following the Wizards' loss to Toronto on Thursday, Collins said that Lue played "poor at best."
It was hoped that Lue, who averaged 21.2 points in his last year at Nebraska (1998), would be able to hit the deep jumper, therefore loosening things up down low and making teams pay when they chose to double either Jordan or, say, Richard Hamilton. But in the preseason Lue's jumper struck fear in no one.
Collins seems to be more patient with Lue than he is with Laettner. He already has pointed out that Lue will have to get used to playing point guard in a regular system after having been trained in the ways of Phil Jackson's triangle with the Lakers.
The Wizards felt Lue would press Whitney for the starting job, but it now appears Whitney will be the starter when the team plays conventionally. But there will be times when Whitney and Lue don't start the game because Collins chooses to go with a big perimeter featuring Jordan, Hamilton and Courtney Alexander.
Laettner still has the starting power forward's job locked up, though. The Wizards don't have anyone else there, and that includes No. 1 draft choice Brown, who had his best game of the season in the finale (13 points, six rebounds, team-high two blocks. They also know of Laettner's tendency to sulk when he has to come off of the bench.
But Laettner, playing with his fifth team in 10 seasons, better come to play within the next week or so. Collins is very demanding of his players, and he has tooted Laettner's horn since training camp. Now it's time for Laettner and Lue also to make their own noise.


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