Three months ago sleepy-eyed small forward Richard (Rip) Hamilton
wasn't even a starter and rarely ranked as a high priority for
reporters when it came to postgame interviews. Still, there he
was in the visitors' locker room at Madison Square Garden last
Thursday, the new floor leader of the stripped-down Wizards,
facing nearly an hour of questions, most of them about the
possibility of his boss, Michael Jordan, unretiring. "Having Mike
in practice has been great--we can learn from his high level of
competitive energy," said Hamilton, acknowledging that Jordan had
worked out with the team twice in the past three weeks. "Mike's
still Mike. He could come back tomorrow if he wanted to." Just
the same, Hamilton added, "We don't need him coming back."
Washington's 18-58 record at week's end suggested otherwise. In
fact, Hamilton's improved play has been one of the team's few
bright spots. Since the Wizards' late-February dismantling--when
the disappointing Juwan Howard was shipped to the Mavericks, the
mercurial Rod Strickland was waived outright and 35-year-old
veteran Mitch Richmond began an extended stay on injured
reserve--Hamilton has filled the void. Hamilton, a second-year
player out of Connecticut, was averaging 15.6 points a game
before the trade and has averaged a team-leading 23.5 since. He
has scored 40 or more points twice during that span and poured in
more than 30 six times. "He's become so much more confident,"
says Washington center Jahidi White. "He's finding his shot more.
He doesn't need a play [run for him] to score."
A sleek 6'6", Hamilton is deceptively quick and excels at
breaking down defenders with his slick ball handling and at using
picks to free himself for jumpers. In New York last week he
repeatedly beat the Knicks to the basket with his distinctive
tiptoeing moves, cutting through the lane as if playing
hopscotch. From the outside, he buried three-pointers and pillowy
soft midrange leaners with equal proficiency en route to a
31-point night in a 93-80 Wizards loss. "[Hamilton] was real
impressive," said New York swingman Latrell Sprewell. "He likes
[to come off] that wide screen, and he had it going."
Of course, Hamilton has become the Man in D.C. almost by default;
after all, someone has to do the scoring. (Another player who has
come to the same realization is rookie guard Courtney Alexander,
a Jordan favorite whose style of play on offense is said to irk
Hamilton. Alexander arrived in the Howard trade with a 4.2
average and is averaging 15.4 as a Wizard.) "Hamilton's offense
is good and will get better," says one Eastern Conference scout,
"but the bigger questions are about his defense and toughness.
Can he give, and take, a pounding every night?"
Hamilton is that rarest of Wizards--pleasant and thoughtful, a
seer of bright sides and glasses half full. Yes, he must get
stronger (he hopes to add 10 to 15 pounds to his 185-pound frame
through off-season weight training), and he knows Washington
needs to get better. Yet he sees such shortcomings as hurdles not
yet leaped. "We're a young team that's struggled and has had to
learn on the job," he says, "but that's O.K. We're all getting a
COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL LAYTON/NBA ENTERTAINMENT