- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 8, 2002

The rookie's comment said it all.

"Popeye is that guy who you wouldn't even pick on your team Sunday morning at the YMCA," said a laughing Brendan Haywood of his Washington Wizards teammate, Popeye Jones. "But he gets it done because he really knows how to play the game."

Both statements are true. From a physical standpoint Jones will never be confused with, say, sculpted former Wizard Ben Wallace. However, the second half of Haywood's statement is a much more precise evaluation of Jones' role with the streaking Wizards.

Jones, averaging 6.2 points and 7.5 rebounds, may have the worst vertical leap on the team, but that hasn't prevented the 6-foot-8-inch, 250-pound, pear-shaped power forward from being the team's front-court anchor. Jones leads the 17-14 Wizards in point and rebound double-doubles (six), two of which have come in the team's last two games, and he leads the team with 12 double-digit rebounding games this season, even though he didn't become a starter until the 22nd game of the season.

"Popeye is a savvy, savvy player," Michael Jordan said. "His leadership qualities are exactly why we signed him, to help the young kids learn the little things that make a difference in how well a player develops. Now here he is starting for us and being very successful. That's something we didn't envision early."

Little, it seems, is ever expected of Jones, the lone exception being what he expects of himself. A second-round draft pick by the Houston Rockets out of Murray State in 1992, Jones, now with his fifth team, had his best seasons with Dallas when in back-to-back seasons (1994-96) he averaged 10.6 points and 10.3 boards, and 10.8 points and 11.3 rebounds.

But in the four seasons before this one, two surgeries on his left anterior cruciate ligament, back problems and last season's broken left index finger forced him out of 179 of a possible 296 games.

Jones, who signed a one-year, $1.3 million deal with the Wizards over the summer, took every precaution to make sure he would be healthy this season. Jones tortured his body all summer, working out with weights religiously and making sure the knee that he almost destroyed, his back and any other body part wouldn't prevent him from contributing.

When power forward Christian Laettner went down with a broken leg that will keep him out at least until Jan. 19, Jones, who was working out yesterday long after most of his teammates had gone home, was ready to step in. At the time, Kwame Brown, the top pick in the draft, and Etan Thomas, were not ready.

"I went home in the summertime, took a month off and started working out seriously and my body started feeling really good. It let me know how much I can really push it to get ready," Jones, 30, said. "I felt like a rookie coming back to training camp.

"I felt like I really had something to prove with Michael coming back, with Doug [Collins] coming in as the new coach. I felt that if I could go into training camp and prove that I'm healthy, that I can help this team and get minutes, that is what would make me happy. I wanted to prove that I could help this team win."

Jordan knows the team's current success they haven't been three games or more above .500 31 games into the season since beginning the 1984-85 season 18-13 is in part due to re-signing Jones.

"Obviously it has proven to be critical for us," Jordan said. "Unfortunately, Christian went down. Now we've got to throw in a young kid at the power forward position. I don't know if they were ready for that starting role. It would have been crucial for us. That proved to be a key pickup for us, especially at this stage of the game."

Jones' ideal situation calls for him playing about 15-20 minutes a night. Any more than that and the Wizards figured he would start to lose his effectiveness.

But that couldn't be further from the truth. Laettner's injury has forced Jones to play extensive minutes, and Jones has responded well. During the team's present three-game winning streak, Jones hasn't played less than 30 minutes. In his last two games, victories over New Jersey and Chicago, Jones logged 36 and 38 minutes but has not worn down. In those games he combined for 22 points and 26 rebounds.

However, Jones knows he can be the most help to the Wizards coming off the bench to give the second unit rebounding help. And when Laettner returns later this month, Jones has no problem re-taking his seat.

"When Christian gets back he can start and I'll be the backup again," said Jones, who'd like to finish his career in Washington and eventually coach here. "I think that Doug has done a good job in the type of minutes that he's played me. He hasn't really worn me out. I feel really well."

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