- The Washington Times - Monday, January 3, 2005

The gashes above and below Michael Ruffin’s left eye — the result of Washington Wizards teammate Samaki Walker’s elbow during the first days of training camp — have almost cleared up.

And tomorrow Ruffin will head back to the dentist, who will finish repairing the damage caused by an elbow landed earlier this season by Miami’s Michael Doleac.

“It’s a physical game; it’s a man’s game,” Ruffin said.

While earning his battle scars, Ruffin has the Wizards’ brass smiling. The rugged Ruffin has been every bit the tough customer Washington hoped for when it signed him to a partial contract ($745,046), which come next Monday will be guaranteed for this season.

With injuries having sidelined big men Kwame Brown (right foot) and Etan Thomas (abdominal strain), the undersized Ruffin (6-foot-8, 246 pounds) has been forced to play a much larger role than originally anticipated. And the 27-year-old journeyman has responded by being an energetic and physical force for the Wizards (16-13).

“He’s gotten an opportunity,” said Washington president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, who is known for his low-priced free agent finds. “It’s the nature of the NBA. Guys get hurt and guys have to step up and pick up the slack, and he’s done that for us. He’s really helped our team win.”

Don’t be fooled into overanalyzing Ruffin’s statistics — 1.3 points and 4.6 rebounds in just more than 18 minutes a game. If you are looking for the Wizards’ player most likely to dive into the stands for a ball, or make a heads-up tip pass to an open teammate for an easy score, Ruffin’s your guy.

However, it’s as a rebounder and a post defender where Ruffin more than earns his comparatively meager NBA salary. Ruffin is fourth in the NBA in offensive rebounds (6.0) per 48 minutes. He had 11 offensive rebounds in a win at Golden State. Over the last four games, he is averaging 8.3 rebounds (3.0 offensive), including a 10-rebound (six offensive) effort against Boston.

“That’s my game — rebounding, hustle plays, defense, playing hard,” said Ruffin, who had seven rebounds, two assists, two steals, a blocked shot and no points as Washington snapped a two-game losing streak against Atlanta on Sunday. “My goal when I go out there is to play hard the entire time I’m out there.”

Ruffin gave promise to a productive season by posting a remarkable seven blocked shots — a team season-high — in the Wizards’ opening win at Memphis.

Ruffin, who spent last season with Utah and is on his fourth NBA team, never has averaged more than 2.6 points since leaving Tulsa, where he studied engineering and was an Academic All-American. He was the 32nd overall pick in the 1999 draft by Chicago, where he had career highs in points (2.6) and rebounds (5.8) in his second and final season with the Bulls.

But the well-read grinder feels this is only the beginning for him and a blossoming franchise. He is anxious to see how good this team can be when Thomas and Brown are in uniform.

“We’re not even 100 percent healthy yet,” Ruffin said. “So there are a lot of things we can improve on. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all comes together.”

Note — Thomas participated in his most extensive practice yesterday. Following the session, he sounded optimistic that he was close to returning, though he would not set a target date. Brown had an MRI on his right foot and is considering getting a second opinion.

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