- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

NBA teams are always looking for a few good big men, yet Brendan Haywood, all 7-feet-1, 268 pounds of him, was drafted from the fringes of lottery land (20th) in June, then traded not once but twice before ever suiting up.

Tonight at home against the Chicago Bulls, Haywood will play center for the Wizards, one of the hottest teams in the league. Michael Jordan aside, Haywood is a significant reason for that, even though he's been coming off the bench. The NBA acknowledged Haywood's contribution Wednesday by naming him the Eastern Conference rookie of the month, and although he is just starting his career, Haywood to this point is qualified to deliver a hearty "I told you so."

He will, however, resist.

"I don't think it really vindicates me," he said of his recent play. "I know I have a ways to go, and I know I can get better."

But Haywood, who averaged 7.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.2 blocks a game as the Wizards went 11-4 in December, did allow himself to add this modified zinger: "I want to continue to improve," he said, "so teams three or four years from now can say they really missed out on a good player."

Perhaps the thought already has occurred to some center-deficient teams, of which there are a few. Said guard Hubert Davis, "What would you see of him to make you say, 'Nah, we don't want him.'"?

Well, there was this: Throughout most of his four years at North Carolina, three as a starter, critics considered Haywood an underachiever, a gifted player who only sometimes freely shared those gifts. His work-ethic, commitment and aggressiveness were questioned at times, and he was tagged with the dreaded label "soft."

A former Carolina teammate, Ed Cota, once said of Haywood, "No telling how Brendan can dominate when he's motivated." When he's motivated?

Cota quickly backtracked, adding, "I mean, he's a low-key guy, but he can still be a warrior on the court," but the message seemed clear. Some clever Tar Heels fans, perhaps irked over the time he grabbed just one rebound during an NCAA tournament loss his sophomore year, referred to Haywood as "Brenda."

Haywood, who once weighed more than 300 pounds, streamlined himself and had some big games, notably in the 2000 NCAA tournament, when he led an 18-13 team to upset victories over Missouri and top-seeded Stanford. He blocked more shots than anyone in school history and finished as the Atlantic Coast Conference's career field goal percentage leader. Also, it was Haywood (and not Jordan) who had the first triple-double ever for the Tar Heels.

But Haywood never posted the really flashy numbers (few do at Carolina; ask Jordan), averaging between 12.0 and 13.6 points and 6.9 and 7.5 rebounds a game during the three years he started.

"I think a lot of times, people look too much at numbers, and don't look at what's really going on," he said. "A lot of people want to say this and that, but I was a winner in college. … Sometimes I didn't have 30 points, but you know what? I had 10 rebounds, four or five blocks, a couple of big free throws down the stretch and key defensive stops. Your stats aren't always gonna be there night in and night out, but your hustle's always gonna be there."

But the criticism, along with reports of a suspect left knee, continued to dog Haywood right through the draft. Projected to go between nine and 15, he sat that night at New York's Madison Square Garden with his mom and grandmother and some friends, waiting as team after team passed him by.

And he knew why.

"Some people had questions about my toughness, some people didn't think I worked hard, some people questioned the health of my knee," he said. "My knees are fine. I've never had a coach say I didn't work hard and I think I'm as tough as anybody out there. I guess you had a lot of false rumors out there.

"People who were saying I was soft weren't close to me. They weren't my family members or friends or the coaching staff. It was people looking from the outside in. They didn't see that every time I got real aggressive the referees would call fouls. They wouldn't let me play, just because I was so much bigger than everybody else."

The Cleveland Cavaliers finally took Haywood with the 20th pick, then immediately traded him to the Orlando Magic for another center, Michael Doleac. It was reported that Orlando, which took 7-foot Steven Hunter from DePaul with the 15th selection, was more infatuated with dumping Doleac's salary than they were with Haywood.

This apparently was demonstrated in August when the Magic traded Haywood to the Wizards for guard Laron Profit and a future first-round draft pick.

Haywood wasn't surprised at what the Cavs did; they already had enough big men. But he thought he was a good fit for the Magic. "I did everything they wanted me to do," he said. "I worked hard. I was a little shocked, a little disappointed. But now, it's probably the best thing for me, getting a chance to play here. More minutes, and a better record."

Wizards coach Doug Collins said Haywood made a quick and favorable impression during training camp before suffering torn thumb ligaments that would cause him to miss the first 12 games of the season. At first glance, Collins said Haywood reminded him of a young Robert Parish.

"He's long, he can run the floor," said Collins. "Right now he's not a polished offensive player. Most of the stuff he gets is as a secondary offensive player. But he has great timing, and he's been well-taught.

"Carolina has a history of probably developing big men as well as anybody in the country. He understands the game, he's very smart. I understand the big knock on him was, 'Is he tough, can he rebound?' He's shown people he can do those things."

Davis, another member of the Wizards' Tar Heels alumni club, shook his head when asked about Haywood's reputation. "It amazes me," he said. "It really does. I don't know who makes these rumors."

Whomever it was, word certainly got around.

"He was listed as soft and not a hard practice player," assistant coach John Bach said. "I don't know how those things start, but all I know is, when he came to us [during camp], he had a nice feeling about the game. He understands the game. He saw the use of drills, saw the purpose of them and, frankly, he stood out as perhaps our best center.

"We were pleasantly surprised," said Bach. "He's far from what they said he was. He's way, way ahead."

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