- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2002

The much-anticipated return of Washington Wizards guard Richard Hamilton might take a little longer than the team expected.

Hamilton, who has missed the Wizards' last nine games with a partially torn right groin, had wanted to return in time for Michael Jordan's Saturday homecoming at United Center in Chicago. However, following the team's workout at MCI Center yesterday in which Hamilton participated Washington's second leading scorer still walked with a slight limp and admitted he's not where he hoped to be.

However, starting power forward Christian Laettner, out the last 12 games with a broken left fibula, should return by Saturday.

"It's tough to say," Hamilton said when asked to rate his readiness to play on a scale from one to 10. "There are certain things I can do. I can run, which is a good thing. But I can't move laterally. That's where I have trouble. I can't practice anywhere near full strength."

If he can't play Saturday, the team is hopeful he'll be ready for the Jan.21 game at Minnesota. Hamilton is averaging 19.8 points and 4.0 rebounds a game. However, in the 11 games before his injury, Hamilton averaged 24.6 points.

Wizards coach Doug Collins had hoped that Laettner might be able to return as soon as tonight when the Wizards face the San Antonio Spurs at MCI Center. But Laettner, who lately has been working out with the team, indicated he would not be ready to make his return until Saturday.

"I'm sure I'll be playing by Saturday," Laettner said. "My shape is really down and so is my wind. As soon as I get that up halfway I'll be ready to go. But it's not going to be ready by tomorrow; it's not going to be ready by Wednesday. I've got to get two good practices in Thursday and Friday and then I'll be ready."

Collins liked the way Laettner, averaging 8.5 points and 5.7 rebounds, looked during practice yesterday. However, he said he would let Laettner make the call on when he'll return. However, he added that if Laettner said he felt healthy enough to play tonight, Collins would be more than happy to use him.

"I'll let him make that judgement," Collins said. "I don't know if he wants to get a couple more practices under his belt or whatever, but if he would say 'I want to play,' definitely."

Collins can feel some of the momentum the Wizards have built starting to ebb. They have lost their last two games after having won 13 of 15. During that stretch the Wizards defense was particularly stifling, holding opponents to just 85.8 points.

However, it was also during that time that the Wizards had to insert both Popeye Jones and Hubert Davis both of whom are more comfortable in reserve roles in place of Laettner and Hamilton. It worked for a while, but now the Wizards are struggling.

In their two most recent games, losses to upper-echelon teams Milwaukee and Minnesota, the Wizards gave up 105 and 108 points, respectively.

On top of the injuries to starters, reserve shooting guard Courtney Alexander, expected to be a key contributor this season, has been anything but. Alexander has appeared in just 16 games this season. He was placed on the injured list Saturday with a sprained left ankle. And making matters even worse, reserve point guard Tyronn Lue is doubtful for tonight's game with Midwest Division-leading San Antonio because of a strained left groin muscle.

This has left the Wizards a spent team in their last two games, and their defense has suffered the most.

"The injuries have really hurt us," Collins said. "Popeye is tired. I need to get those guys back with the second unit so that we can have some semblance of a second unit. Right now I'm thrilled to have been able to have won as many games as we have with these injuries. We could have really dug ourselves a huge hole but we've kept ourselves in the thick of things."

Note Wizards rookie Kwame Brown was examined by a pulmonary specialist last night. Brown recently has been experiencing fatigue during games and practices. Tests conducted by the Wizards determined that his blood was having trouble transporting oxygen to his lungs during workouts. Results of last night's test should be available today.

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