- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 18, 2003

If the NBA were handing out its most improved player award now, Washington Wizards coach Doug Collins would be pushing guard Larry Hughes.
Collins feels his man rates with, say, Golden State's duo of Gilbert Arenas and Troy Murphy.
"I feel like he's one of them," Collins said. "They're young guys who have really worked hard. And I'll tell you, Larry has really been great for us."
It is becoming more and more obvious that the Wizards hit paydirt last summer when they signed Hughes to a three-year, $15million deal. This was never more evident than in the second half of Washington's victory Thursday night against the Orlando Magic a team the Wizards might challenge for a high seed in the playoffs.
In the Wizards' second game without leading scorer Jerry Stackhouse, who has a groin injury, Michael Jordan scorched the Magic for 28 points in the first half. But because he was either conserving energy or will turn 40 next month, Jordan scored just four points in the second half as the Magic, who trailed by 18 in the first half, tied the game early in the third quarter.
Hughes then took over. He finished with 22 points, second to Jordan's 32, but it was the manner in which they came that left the biggest impression.
Playing at the two guard, his natural position, Hughes pumped in 16 points in the second half. He also finished with eight assists and seven rebounds and caused the Magic all kinds of problems at both ends of the floor.
"I'd agree that he's one of the most improved players in the league," Magic coach Doc Rivers said. "I think he thinks he feels like he's found a home."
Hughes endured tumultuous seasons in Philadelphia and Golden State as both teams wanted to force him into the role of point guard. However, Collins has given Hughes the freedom to be aggressive at the offensive end and to take chances defensively in other words, be an all-around player. And Hughes believes this is the comfort zone he has been searching for.
"I'm getting more comfortable I'm definitely a better basketball player than I was last year," Hughes said. "And I was a much better basketball player than I was the year before. It's a growth process that comes from knowing where I want to be in this league. I want to be at the next level."
What is most surprising is that Hughes has found a comfort zone under Collins, who in his earlier days had the reputation of being the ultimate Type A coach the kind who tends to overcoach. But Collins has mellowed. During their first meeting, he told Hughes to just play basketball the way he knows how.
"The day after I signed, he let me know the kind of system that he wanted to run, and he wanted me to be comfortable in it," Hughes said. "I think he's adjusted to the kind of player that I am. He allows me to be free out there and make plays, but at the same time he guides me in the right direction."
Hughes' 13.6 scoring average this season is far below the 22.7 he averaged in the final 32 games of 1999-00 after he was traded to Golden State from Philadelphia. However, he has never shot the ball with more confidence than he has this year: a career-best. .467. During one stretch last month, Hughes strung together five consecutive double-doubles in points and rebounds.
Last summer Hughes made up his mind that he wanted to become a better player. He hired Florida-based shooting instructor Chip England, who also mentors Orlando's Grant Hill.
"It was the first time I hired someone to make my game better," Hughes said.
Said Collins: "That's a sign of a maturing player."
In the past, Hughes had to share the ball with Philadelphia's Allen Iverson, the captain of tonight's opponent at MCI Center. With Golden State, the Warriors were completely unstable and never figured out the best way to use him. That's why it seems as if Hughes, a lottery pick in 1998 when he was 19, has been in the league a lot longer than he really has.
"I think a lot of people forget how young Larry is, but he's going to factor into what we do in the future," Collins said. "When I talk about young players being a big part of our future, he's included in that."
Which is fine with Hughes.
"I like playing in Washington," he said. "I want to be here."


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