- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 4, 2003

The Washington Wizards knew from the beginning of the season that December would be a true test of how far the team has come and how far it could go.

The early schedule was full of games, home and away, against toughened playoff teams that usually run through the likes of Washington. But the Wizards, with their young front line and new faces, got through the month with an 8-7 record, and that included dropping close road games against Dallas, San Antonio and Detroit.

This is why coach Doug Collins was smiling following practice yesterday. He looked forward to a new month that has the Wizards playing at home frequently and even though he won't say it a schedule that serves up some of the league's weaker teams.

"If we are going to make a push, we've got to do it right now," Collins said. "We ended the year on a high note. We started the new year on a high note. Looking at the calendar, I felt that if we could stay afloat in the month of December, then the month of January as we're maturing as a team we could win some games.

"I think that our record in December says a lot about this team. If you can set as your goal a winning month, then good things can happen."

After tonight's home game against tough Indiana, January does grow more forgiving. Nine of the Wizards' next 13 games are at home, and six come against teams that have worse records.

One thing Collins apparently doesn't need to worry about is the ego of second-year forward Kwame Brown. Collins benched Brown earlier in the season in favor of Christian Laettner, and the move prompted Brown to question his role.

However, Brown is coming off his best game of the season 20 points and 12 rebounds in the Wizards' 107-82 rout of Chicago on Thursday night and his play has been steadier of late.

"I don't mind coming off the bench now," Brown said. "At first I was a little upset, but now I'm still getting minutes, just as many minutes as Christian. So I'm just taking it and making the most of it. Right now, I'm just happy the way things are as long as I can contribute. Starting doesn't really matter."

What has Collins happier about Brown's recent play has more to do with what he is doing off the court than on it.

On the team flight to Chicago on Wednesday, Brown paid special attention to the play of Chicago forward Tyson Chandler, who, like Brown, was a lottery pick out of high school in last year's draft.

Brown noticed that in the Bulls' win against Portland, Chandler scored most of his career-high 27 points on screen-and-roll plays. Brown promised Collins that he would not be taken advantage of in the same fashion by the 7-footer, and he was right. Chandler finished with eight points and four rebounds in 32 minutes.

"He paid special attention to the film, and I think he made it up in his mind that he was going to show the people of Chicago exactly why he was the number one pick in the draft," Collins said. "He's improving because he's working harder in practice; he's playing more attention to detail.

"Now we just want him to get to the point where he's looking at every game like that. We want him to get to the point where a night like that is not something that anybody raves about. We feel that is what he's capable of doing."

Notes Jared Jeffries, who suffered a torn right Achilles' tendon Dec.22, is about a week away from having surgery. Jeffries was at practice yesterday walking without crutches for the first time. However, there is still no chance that the 11th pick in last year's draft will return this season.

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