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Mercer to Nuggets in six-player swap

The Celtics sent Ron Mercer to the Denver Nuggets as part of a six-player trade, parting with the talented scorer rather than engaging in what was shaping up as a contentious contract negotiation.

In exchange for Mercer, who played for Celtics coach Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky, forward Popeye Jones and center Dwayne Schintzius, Boston received forwards Danny Fortson and Eric Williams _ who began his career with the Celtics _ as well as guard Eric Washington and a future first-round pick.

Mercer, 23, averaged 17 points last season, second on the team behind Antoine Walker, and is considered one of the most talented young players in the league.

Pitino said he didn't want to trade the 6-foot-7 swingman, although his salary demands made it necessary. Mercer's contract was up after next season.

"We would not have traded Ron Mercer if it weren't for financial reasons," Pitino said. "I could not ever come close to the numbers Ron wanted as a basketball player."

The acquisition of the 23-year-old Fortson, the league's fourth-leading rebounder last season, changes Boston's complexion from a finesse, speed oriented team to a physical one with a low-post presence.

The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Fortson, who also can receive a contract extension, last season averaged 11.6 rebounds and 11 points a game.

The trade means a return to Boston for Williams, whom the Celtics chose with the 14th overall pick in the 1995 draft out of Providence College. Although the 27-year-old averaged 15 points a game for Boston during the 1996-97 season, Pitino labeled him as lazy and traded him to Denver.

"We're getting back a ballplayer that has matured, grown up," Pitino said of Williams, who has two years left on a $30-million contract.

Boston signed rookie free-agent guard Wayne Turner, the team said. Turner was a member of two NCAA championship teams and one NCAA runner-up at Kentucky, where he played for Pitino from 1995-97. Terms weren't disclosed.

BATTIE ENTERS PLEA: Tony Battie of the Celtics pleaded to "sufficient facts" in a case in which he was accused of dragging a police officer behind his car. While not an admission of guilt, the plea acknowledges the case would have been made against him, had it moved forward, according to Jim Borghesani, spokesman for the Suffolk County district attorney's office.

HAWKS: Atlanta backed away from a sign-and-trade deal that would have sent newly acquired guard Jim Jackson to the L.A. Clippers for center-forward Lorenzen Wright. While the Hawks still would like to have Wright, they are committed to Jackson and Isaiah Rider for at least one season.

LAKERS: Spurning offers for more money elsewhere, guard Derek Fisher agreed to re-sign in a seven-year deal worth about $30-million His signing puts to rest rumors that had Magic guard Penny Hardaway going to Los Angeles. Last year, Fisher averaged 5.9 points a game in 50 games _ 21 of which he started.

MAVERICKS: Dallas signed free-agent guard Greg Buckner, 22, to a one-year contract. He was drafted by the Mavericks in 1998 but spent the majority of last season with the CBA's Grand Rapid Hoops.

NETS: New Jersey waived Rony Seikaly after the veteran center played just 18 games over 1{ seasons with the team because of injuries. Seikaly, 34, averaged 1.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in nine games with New Jersey last season. Jamie Feick signed a six-year contract worth about $15-million.

NUGGETS: Denver re-signed starting point guard Nick Van Exel. Van Exel, 27, averaged 16.5 points and a team-high 7.4 assists in starting all 50 games with the Nuggets this season. Terms of the contract were not disclosed.

WIZARDS: Washington hired Butch Beard as an assistant on Gar Heard's coaching staff. His last stint in the NBA was as head coach of the Nets in 1995-96.