- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

At some point, possibly as soon as tonight, the Washington Wizards are likely to be eliminated from the playoffs, the result of a loss for them or a victory by the Toronto Raptors.

No, it's not impossible to expect the Raptors to drop all four of their remaining games they did lose 17 of 18 before winning 10 straight to revive their season. And the Wizards potentially could collect wins against the Allen Iverson-less 76ers, the good-one-minute-bad-the-next Indiana Pacers, and the lottery-bound New York Knicks. It just isn't likely.

When elimination happens, it will be time for management to begin dissecting the Wizards from head to toe to determine what moves they might make via trade unless they're getting some cap relief via trade, don't expect much the draft and the weak free agent market.

However, if you believe coach Doug Collins, the Wizards' frontcourt which in years past has served as the training ground for, among others, All-Stars Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace, and Ben Wallace, this season's likely candidate for the league's top defender (he's already got this voter's chad) has a chance to turn into something special.

"The toughest thing in this league is to get good big guys, and we've got some good young big guys, which is good," Collins said. "Now we've got to be able to shore up some other areas, but it looks like we're moving in the right direction."

Although the Wizards have struggled recently, they are still in position to double last season's 19 victories, so it is impossible to view this season as a failure even if the Wizards don't make the playoffs. And unlike in the past, when the Wizards have said goodbye to some of the better young frontcourt players who have come through Washington, it looks like they have every intention of being patient now with rookies Kwame Brown, Etan Thomas and Brendan Haywood.

The 7-foot Haywood has more potential than anyone could have expected from him after a lackluster career at North Carolina. And before nagging injuries and the length of the NBA season got the best of him, Haywood had shown the ability to play in the post, rebound and block shots.

Brown, the first high school player taken with the top pick in the draft, was so green that Collins wouldn't even play him even in blowouts early in the season. However, Brown has played well at times down the stretch, and in the last month when the Wizards were battling for a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 1997, Collins became less reluctant to play the 20-year old.

"I still think we've got something special in Kwame if he makes the commitment to be a great player," Collins said the other day."

However, it has been the recent play of Etan Thomas that has given Collins the greatest reason for optimism. Thomas, acquired last year from Dallas, appears to have outgrown the fear he had of playing because of a nagging toe injury, and he has persevered even when he went through long stretches when Collins didn't so much as look his way.

That, too, is changing for the young center/power forward. In a must-win situation against Philadelphia on Wednesday, Collins went with Thomas at center extensively against Philadelphia's Dikembe Mutombo, and Thomas responded with career highs in points (14) and rebounds (15) in 25 minutes.

Thomas also collected three of the Wizards' season-high 12 blocked shots.

"He's been frustrated this year, and I can appreciate that because Etan wants to play," Collins said. "What he is showing us now is he wants to play."

No dummy, Collins realizes that perhaps as soon as next season at least two of them could be starters. After all, it became clear that neither Popeye Jones although he gave the Wizards more than they could have ever expected this season and Christian Laettner are not the long-term answers the Wizards are looking for.

But there is hope for the future.

"We've got a lot of reasons to be optimistic," Collins said with a smile.

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