Wizards: a shot at success?

Injuries bring questions in Heard's first year

Pro Basketball

November 01, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When Gar Heard began his first stint as a head coach in the NBA, he had little time to prepare. Heard, then an assistant with the Dallas Mavericks, was promoted after Richie Adubato had been fired 29 games into the 1992-93 season.

"When I took over, we had two wins," Heard recalled yesterday of a team that won only seven more times that season. "Quite naturally, we have a lot better team here."

After returning to assistant coaching jobs in Indiana, Philadelphia and Detroit, Heard will officially begin his second tenure as a head coach when the Washington Wizards play the Atlanta Hawks in a 7 p.m. game tomorrow at MCI Center.

The Wizards are certainly expected to be more successful than the Mavericks were -- and still are -- but how much impact Heard will have on a franchise that has made the playoffs once in the past 11 years might not be felt for a while.

Despite a respectable showing in the preseason, the Wizards begin the 1999-2000 season with question marks and medical quandaries: Will Isaac Austin, acquired from the Orlando Magic in August for four players, be the presence around the basket that the Wizards have lacked since before Gheorghe Muresan began his acting career? And when will Austin's strained hip flexor heal enough for the 6-10, 270-pound center to be at full strength?

Will power forward Aaron Williams, who was signed as a free agent in August, provide the kind of rebounding help Heard's team needs to run more than it did under Bernie Bickerstaff? And when will Williams recover from the less serious but still nagging injuries that disrupted his preseason?

Will shooting guard Mitch Richmond, who re-signed with the Wizards in the off-season, return to the form that made him first-, second- or third-team All-NBA in all but one year between 1994 and 1998? And when will Richmond be back in sync after missing all but the last weekend of the preseason with a hamstring injury?

"I want to keep the players on the court who are going to be a part of what we're doing all year," Heard said. "Ike is a big part of that. So is Aaron. So is Michael [Smith]."

Of the newly acquired players expected to figure significantly in Heard's plans, only Smith has received more time on the court than in the training room the past month. Smith, a power forward claimed off waivers from the Sacramento Kings, is expected to start tonight.

What could help the Wizards as they recover from their various injuries is a favorable early-season schedule. Eight of the first 11 games are at home. The first four games are against teams with as many question marks and medical problems as the Wizards.

"It helps," said forward Juwan Howard, still fighting the effects of the flu. "We understand Atlanta has been short-handed. It's going to be very important to start aggressively and to gain confidence. But you can't take any of those teams lightly."

Though not picked in many preseason magazines among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, the Wizards have a chance to make noise, especially in a division as weak as theirs.

With the New York Knicks still worried about Patrick Ewing's future, with the Philadelphia 76ers missing Matt Geiger and Theo Ratliff with injuries for the first month, with the New Jersey Nets so desperate at center that Muresan is starting for them, Austin's return will be huge.

It is likely that Heard could have Austin sit out the first five games -- against the Hawks, Boston Celtics, Magic, Nets and Seattle SuperSonics before the Miami Heat comes to town Nov. 12. Austin would like to be ready to go -- tomorrow -- but is realistic enough not to sacrifice the first two weeks for the last two months.

"It's been very disappointing," said Austin, who stayed a half-hour after practice yesterday to work with assistant coach Butch Beard. "I worked very hard over the summer to get back to where I was before. I've never been hurt and missed preseason practice like this."

If Austin can't play tomorrow night, the Wizards will likely start second-year player Jahidi White at center, along with Howard and Smith in the frontcourt. Richmond and Rod Strickland, who has had his own distractions during training camp, will start in the backcourt.

Richmond's injury and Strickland's unexcused absences from practice last week opened the door for rookie guards Richard Hamilton and Laron Profit.

Hamilton, the team's No. 1 draft pick, has played with more confidence as the exhibition season wore on, while Profit, the former University of Maryland standout, has been the team's biggest surprise. Profit, a second-round pick of the Magic last June who came to the Wizards for a conditional draft pick last month, earned the last spot on the team last week.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.