- The Washington Times - Monday, January 10, 2005

With recent victories over teams like Seattle and Minnesota, the Washington Wizards have the third-best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference at 19-13. The team’s chemistry, which by all outward appearances is at its best in years, really hasn’t been questioned.

And the Wizards don’t expect that to change tomorrow night when center/forward Etan Thomas makes his season debut against Portland at MCI Center. Thomas, who signed a six-year, $39 million contract in the offseason after the Wizards matched Milwaukee’s offer sheet, missed the first 32 games with a strained abdomen.

“I’m optimistic,” said Thomas, who suffered his injury during training camp. “They just have to slowly work me in because everything is going well. Brendan [Haywood] and Michael [Ruffin] are playing really well. I just have to work myself back in. I don’t think there’s a big rush for me to come in and do anything drastic.”

That pretty much sums it up for the Wizards, who are riding a four-game winning streak.

Thomas never has scored more than the 8.9 points he averaged last season, and he has had the mind-set of a lunch-pail player since the Wizards acquired him from Dallas almost four years ago. Carrying at least 260 pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame — the injury hasn’t kept him out of the weight room — Thomas knows exactly what the Wizards want from him, and they are more than happy to see it coming.

“Aw, man. I can’t wait for Etan because it makes us more dangerous,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “It takes away from Jared [Jeffries] and myself having to bang with those big guys. They bring us more toughness. If you say what we don’t have and what can we improve on, it would be that.”

First and foremost, Thomas will give the Wizards a nastier defensive presence inside. This will help relieve Jamison of the burden of guarding bigger players like Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace and, more recently, Kevin Garnett.

“Etan knows his role,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “He knows he’s in there to battle physically and to be defensive minded.”

Thomas won’t be asked to give the Wizards 20 points a night, especially with Jamison, Larry Hughes and Gilbert Arenas combining for 64.8. In fact, the Wizards still see Kwame Brown — who is out for at least the next week and probably won’t be counted on for much offensively until after the All-Star break next month — as their most versatile frontcourt player on offense after Jamison.

Jordan expects Thomas to be rusty offensively. What the coach wants to see, though, is Thomas playing physical defense and rebounding.

“It really doesn’t make it harder on us; it makes it harder on the coaches,” Hughes said of any potential adjustments. “We always want to get those guys involved. But we won’t try to do anything out of the ordinary because that’s when you start making mistakes and turnovers.”

While guards Arenas and Hughes warrant All-Star consideration, it is no secret Jordan wants the team to improve defensively, especially on the perimeter. According to Hughes, Thomas’ presence might make a difference in how the backcourt defends.

“It’s good to have guys like that who can guard the paint,” Hughes said. “That is going to allow us to extend our defense.”

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