- The Washington Times - Friday, November 12, 2004

When the Washington Wizards’ Eddie Jordan called Michael Ruffin “the star of [training] camp” last month, it seemed only like a coach talking up one of his players.

These days, however, Ruffin is commanding that kind of respect from many others. With Kwame Brown (foot) and Etan Thomas (abdominal strain) not expected to return until next month and starting center Brendan Haywood missing the first three games because of a suspension for fighting, the journeyman has become a frontcourt mainstay for the Wizards.

The 6-foot-8 Ruffin’s numbers don’t stand out. In fact, only Samaki Walker is averaging less than his three points a game. And although Ruffin leads the team in blocks (2.2) and only Antawn Jamison is averaging more rebounds than Ruffin’s 6.8, the little things he’s doing have been the biggest factor in the team’s 3-2 start — its best in a decade.

“Every team needs a guy like Michael on the team,” Jamison said. “Offensively, he’s not going to do anything out of the ordinary. But defensively, you know he has your back. He’s relentless in going after loose balls and doing the things the coaches want us to do out there.”

Ruffin, playing for his fourth team since Chicago made him the 32nd pick overall out of Tulsa in 1999, expected to be in a backup role when the Wizards signed him as a free agent in August.

After all, the Wizards committed huge time and money toward turning players like Thomas, Brown and Haywood into a formidable group of big men. In fact, the team recently bestowed handsome contract extensions on both Thomas ($38million) and Haywood ($25million).

When Ruffin got to Washington, all Jordan promised was an opportunity to play based on the hustle and effort he showed.

Ruffin clearly took that to heart during the preseason, which began with him taking an elbow from Walker under the left eye. That resulted in stitches and ended with Jordan saying, “He’s making it hard for me to take him out of the lineup.”

Ruffin made it even harder when he opened the season as the starting center and rejected a career-high seven shots and grabbed 11 rebounds to help the Wizards’ rally from a 19-point deficit to beat Memphis.

Ruffin seemed likely to be benched when Haywood returned Tuesday against Miami. Instead, Jordan sat last year’s lottery pick, Jarvis Hayes. The decision was partially because Jordan likes scoring punch off the bench but more importantly because the game required a tough guy in the lineup against the massive Shaquille O’Neal.

“He’s just doing so many things for us right now,” Jordan said before the 103-93 loss to the Heat. “I feel like I have to have him there so when the game gets physical, we can too.”

Washington has five players scoring in double figures, including Jamison (24.4), Gilbert Arenas (19.0) and Larry Hughes (18.3), and the team’s 102.2 points rank fifth in the league. Barring injuries, the Wizards shouldn’t have a problem putting up points, and that makes Ruffin’s contributions even more valuable.

“He’s the ultimate one guy that you need,” Hughes said. “He is going to rebound, play defense. He’s going to make sure that the guys who are supposed to get the ball get the ball. His meter is always going.”

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