- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2002

After dedicating the offseason to infusing their organization with younger talent, the Washington Wizards yesterday brought in a playoff-seasoned veteran to complete the roster.

The Wizards announced the signing of small forward Bryon Russell to a two-year contract at MCI Center, adding a leading candidate to start at small forward. It makes for a jam-packed roster, one that will have to be tweaked before the season. Washington is at the NBA limit with 15 players under contract and still has not signed second-round pick Rod Grizzard.

"It's interesting because we're running into a numbers situation, but it was something we couldn't pass up," general manager Wes Unseld said.

Russell was an anonymous mid-second round pick in the 1993 draft out of Long Beach State, but entering his 10th NBA season at 31, he has established himself as a valuable player on both ends of the floor as a starter or a reserve. He has career averages of 9.2 points and 3.8 rebounds and is accurate from long range (career 37.1 percent 3-pointers) and the line (career 74.7 percent). He was on playoff teams in each of his nine seasons with the Utah Jazz.

"I'm not coming here to step on nobody's toes," Russell said. "I'm going to bring a lot to the table, especially defensive-wise, and I have a jump shot also."

He saw his scoring and minutes dip last season to 9.6 and 30.7 a game, respectively. In the three seasons before that, he averaged 12.4, 14.0 and 12.0 points while starting most of the time. He said last season's decrease in minutes appeared to be a precursor of a decreased role, and he wanted to move on.

This offseason, Russell fielded offers from San Antonio, Dallas, Seattle and Minnesota, among several other playoff teams from last season. He said the call he received from Michael Jordan to express the Wizards' interest and the opportunity to rejoin coach Doug Collins, with whom he enjoyed working when Collins coached the 1994 rookie game during the All-Star weekend, helped sell him on becoming a Wizard.

"It's like I'm reuniting with two old buddies, Doug and Mike," Russell said.

Of course, most people will remember Russell for his part in the last and most memorable game-winning shot Jordan made in the playoffs in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. With a number of teams from which to choose, Russell jumped at the opportunity to reunite with Jordan under different circumstances.

"I'm trying to develop a relationship with him first," Russell said. "So far, so good. [That] shot happened by the best player in the world. If anything, it made me a better player. And I'm sure I made him work harder than any other defender that ever defended him."

Unseld said the widely reported prospective sign-and-trade deal was not close to being a reality and he was happy to get Russell any way he could. He added that the Wizards' "horrific" early-season schedule, which includes games against New Jersey, Los Angeles and Boston, made it imperative to get off to a good start and have capable players at every position.

And it seems the Wizards do. They now have a legitimate backup at every position should Jordan return as a player, including two each at point guard (Larry Hughes, Tyronn Lue and Chris Whitney) and shooting guard (Jordan, Richard Hamilton and Juan Dixon).

Unseld said the team will continue to evaluate its needs and prospective players to fill them but added, "I'm very comfortable right now. We've got a couple young guys, but we're going to be very, very good eventually."

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