- The Washington Times - Monday, October 7, 2002

WILMINGTON, N.C. Suddenly, Brendan Haywood is the unquestioned man in the middle make that the only man in the middle for the Washington Wizards.
Haywood is one of the few Wizards' frontcourt players who has stayed healthy through the preseason. Jahidi White is out for at least November after undergoing knee surgery this summer. Etan Thomas, thought to challenge for the starting power forward spot, has not played this training camp because of a pulled hamstring. Kwame Brown also began camp with a pulled hamstring but has played well of late.
There's more Ratko Varda, acquired in the trade with Detroit that also brought Jerry Stackhouse, strained a hamstring Saturday night. The only big men who haven't been hurt at some point in the last two weeks are Haywood and power forwards Christian Laettner and Brian Cardinal.
Although he's all but penciled in the starting lineup at center, the 7-foot, 268-pound Haywood isn't taking it easy this training camp.
"There's probably a little more pressure on me to perform because I'm basically the only healthy returning big man we have from last year's team," Haywood said. "But I don't focus on it that much because I'm just trying to get in shape and get ready."
Haywood didn't say it, but he might as well have added "to stay strong through the whole season" to the words "get ready." In backing up White, Haywood played very well early on and earned rookie of the month honors for December, when he averaged 7.9 points and 7.9 rebounds.
He finished the season averaging 5.1 points and 5.2 rebounds. He scored in double figures just once in his last 34 games, although his minutes did drop off late in the season as the Wizards shortened their bench during the playoff push and he played through some swelling in his left knee.
Haywood said he didn't believe he hit the "rookie wall" that some college players do, when the grind of an 82-game season proves too tough to adjust to after playing 30-game seasons in college. But the decline in his production was unmistakable.
"I was tired and stuff, but that was during the time I was rookie of the month that I was feeling tired," Haywood said. "I think it had a lot to do with my knee was swelling and a lot of the moves and things I was going to do before, I wasn't able to do. Couple that with the fact that [Michael Jordan] wasn't playing and the looks I was getting weren't there before."
New additions Stackhouse and Larry Hughes, both of whom have little trouble penetrating and creating scoring opportunities for themselves and their teammates, should give Haywood better looks. Haywood said he worked hard in the offseason on a number of levels to improve his offensive game, particularly on his footwork. Along with Brown and Thomas, he attended the Pete Newell Big Man Camp in Hawaii, where "a lot of the stuff I was working on before was just reinforced."
Coach Doug Collins has said he thinks Haywood can become an "all-league defensive center" although he didn't get the best chances to block shots last year because sometimes his teammates didn't play solid weakside defense around him. Haywood blocked 1.5 shots per game last season.
"First of all, you have to get your work done early [in the possession]," Haywood said. "At Carolina, I could let guys post up because I had confidence I could block their shot. Now I have to bump guys off the lane, get guys off their sweet spots, can't let them dig in [like] last year because guys are so much stronger."
Collins said he isn't so much concerned with Haywood's offense as to the other roles he can fill for the team.
"He's got to rebound better. What I want out of Brendan Haywood is defense, rebounding and shot blocking," Collins said. "I'm not worried about his offense."
Things will change for Haywood, though. For one, he's back wearing the number he wore at North Carolina 00 courtesy of a deal with Juan Dixon, who wanted to wear 3, his old college number .
Haywood also is no longer the rookie that other teams are still trying to put together scouting reports on and he's not a backup anymore at least not as long as White is out. He will get more minutes and draw a whole lot more attention.
Still, that leaves Haywood to shoulder the load at center. And for now, he's the only one shouldering the load.
Chris Whitney sustained a hip flexor injury in the second session on Saturday night and is day-to-day. Whitney and Varda did not practice last night. Bobby Simmons, who sustained a hip pointer Friday night, practiced last night.

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