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 chance here."