Wizards' Whitney relishes newfound winning feeling

In seventh year with team, guard has had fill of losing

January 11, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It's nearly mid-January, and in recent seasons, that has usually meant that the Washington Wizards have started firming up mid-April tee times and making other off-season plans.

But for now, with an 18-14 record heading into tonight's game in Milwaukee against the Central Division-leading Bucks, it's not so crazy to place Wizards and playoffs in the same sentence, and no one is happier about that than point guard Chris Whitney.

Whitney, in his seventh year in Washington, has seen virtually every misery that has been visited on the franchise, going back to when the team still played in Landover and was known as the Bullets. For Whitney, the current turnaround is the basketball equivalent of a midwinter thaw.

"It's hard to put it in words," said Whitney after practice yesterday. "I tell them [teammates] all the time, `You don't know what we've been through around here.' We know that there's a long way to go and there's a lot more season to be played, but we're feeling good about ourselves and we're winning, so this is great."

Indeed, if the season ended today, the Wizards, who, with a win tonight will match their victory total of last season with 49 games remaining, would occupy the fourth slot in the Eastern Conference and would have home-court advantage in a first-round playoff series for the first time since the 1979 NBA Finals against Seattle.

"It [the winning] is a lot different," Whitney said. "It's hard to put in words. You have to go through it yourself to understand what I'm going through. But we know there's a lot of work to be done and we're still working."

Few on the Washington roster have worked as hard or come as far as Whitney, 30, in his ninth overall season out of Clemson.

Since sticking with the team after completing a 10-day contract in the 1995-96 season, the 6-foot Whitney has been quietly efficient, usually called on to spell the mercurial Rod Strickland.

Whitney, who entered the season averaging 5.8 points and 2.7 assists a game for his career, averaged more than 14 points and six assists in 46 starts over the past two seasons, playing most of last year with a severe ankle sprain, which forced him to miss the last 22 games.

With Strickland in Miami this season, Whitney has been handed the keys to coach Doug Collins' offense, and has averaged 8.3 points a game, and 3.3 assists. Though his assists are modest - second on the club to Michael Jordan's 5.4 per game - Whitney's assist-to-turnover ratio is seventh-best in the league at nearly 4-to-1.

"It feels good, but I know I've prepared myself for this, and I've worked extremely hard," Whitney said. "I'm just happy to be on a good team that's winning. If we were losing, then I wouldn't look so good, but we know that team success brings individual success, with Brendan [Haywood] getting Rookie of the Month and Rip [Richard Hamilton] getting Player of the Week and Coach [Collins] getting Coach of the Month. I'm just happy we're winning."

In a statistical anomaly, Whitney is shooting better from three-point range (.400) than he is overall (.399), and has hit three-pointers in each of his past 11 games, including a big three-pointer with 4:09 to go in Tuesday's 96-88 win over the Clippers.

After the game, Collins, who coached Jordan in Chicago, compared Whitney to B.J. Armstrong and John Paxson, key contributors to the Bulls' early '90s championship run, and the soft-spoken Whitney's not running from the comparison.

"Nothing has gotten into my play," Whitney said. "I'm just getting seen a lot more. People see me out there on national TV and are noticing things. I think I've been steady since the beginning of the season. Everything happens for a reason.

"Michael's here, so there are more opportunities for me, especially when teams start double-teaming him. This is the first time that I've been in the spotlight and it's the first time that I've been handed the starting job. If you look back, in the past when I've started, I've done really well. If I can get the success those guys had with Michael, you can call me whatever."

NOTE: Haywood was selected Wednesday to play in the Rookie Challenge game at All-Star Weekend in Philadelphia. Haywood was in attendance Wednesday watching his former team, North Carolina, get drubbed by Maryland. Said Haywood: "It was tough for me to sit there and watch the boys take a pounding like that, because I am such a big fan. I know a lot of the guys. If they keep working hard and cut down on their turnovers, they can become a better team."

Wizards tonight

Opponent: Milwaukee Bucks

Site: Bradley Center, Milwaukee

Time: 8:30

TV/Radio: CSN/WTEM (980 AM)

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