IT'S HERE, it's here! Better late than never, some would say. Who cares, say others.

The NBA's belated season starts today as training begins in earnest. It is a preseason like no other, crammed into 6 days (starting at the team's practice facility at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, ending at Saint Joseph's) with just two preseason games before the first game on Dec. 26.

Free agency starts today, and most teams are in chaotic mode, with unsettled rosters, new coaches and precious few moments before the 66-game schedule begins. Yet the 76ers actually find themselves in a very good position. Yes, restricted free agents Thad Young and Spencer Hawes are waiting to have their deals ironed out, but the outcome probably will be both back in Sixers red, white and blue, and the rest of the roster is pretty much the same from last year, when coach Doug Collins improved the team by 14 wins from the previous year.

"If you look at our team, we have 11 players right now," said Collins, not including Young or Hawes. "The key guys are going to be back. A lot of teams out there are looking at starting training camp with only six or seven-man rosters. That's a tough situation. But with our 11 guys to start we have a lot of key people in and we'll be able to build off of what we did last year."

Even more important than the potential signing of Young, the biggest key to the team this season is the improvement of swingman Evan Turner. Slated to step into the starting slot at the 2-guard, Turner worked diligently this summer with shooting guru Herb Magee. But as much as he needed improvement in that area, and as much as the team and Collins need him to return to the form that garnered him national player of the year honors after his junior season at Ohio State, all agree Turner's biggest leap has to come between the ears.

"It's just a different feeling coming into this season," Turner said. "Last year was such a blur sometimes. I would never say I doubted myself. I certainly never doubt my ability. But it was just a case that I was put in positions that I had never been in before."

Both literally and figuratively. Turner found himself glued to the bench at times, an observer rather than a contributor. Then when on the court, he often found himself in the unfamiliar position of having to find the basketball, rather than it being in his hands. Collins stated last week that Turner will control the ball more this year, that he will make the second-year player more comfortable on the court.

With most of his team back, Collins does have the luxury of not having to squeeze in a bunch of information in the limited time frame. While training camp is all about getting players back in basketball shape and implementing offensive and defensive systems, this year, of course, is a little different.

"We have 66 games in 123 days," Collins said. "This is going to be a really different kind of training camp. In a normal situation, you could really work hard for 6 days, guys would get sore and you're not concerned because you have eight preseason games and you can work the rookies in there and give guys rest when they need it. You can't do that now and it could hurt how much time the younger players get. We'll practice up to the 23rd, but we'll give the guys off the 24th for Christmas. Then we fly out on Christmas Day [for the season-opener the next day in Portland] and then play five games on the road. It's a tough, tough beginning."

Some key points to keep an eye on before the season opens:

* When do Young and Hawes get in? This team started 3-13 last season. Collins has emphasized repeatedly that this team cannot survive a slow start like that, not with the abbreviated season. Getting a running start with all of his players at the beginning of training camp is crucial.

* Can Andre Iguodala and Turner mesh on the court together? Last year, for the most part, it didn't seem so. Like Iguodala, Turner struggled with his outside shooting, instead relying on drives to the basket. Having the two of them doing the same thing wasn't very productive offensively. But in the playoff series against Miami, they seemed to click, seemed to figure a way to make it work. Collins is counting on that being the case this season also. We'll find out soon enough, as they both should be in the starting lineup on Dec. 26.

* Is this schedule a killer for the Sixers? Well, starting with five road games - out West - certainly isn't ideal, but the organization knew it was coming. It can be a good bonding experience (which really isn't overrated in pro sports) and help the team early. If they survive that, 18 of the next 22 are at the Wells Fargo Center. It will be interesting.

"I hate long homestands, hate long road trips," Collins said. "I like more balance, where you're in, you're out [either home or away]. You start out five on road, then the onus is on you. You have to win at home. I haven't looked at the schedule, except for the first six games. That's all. No way last year did I feel after a 3-13 start and then a monster schedule in December that we would be able to not only survive [but] do what we did. My feeling is if we're playing basketball the way we can play it, we can beat anyone. If we're not, anyone can beat us."

* What can be expected of Elton Brand? Collins has made it clear - he expects somewhere in the area of 17 points and nine rebounds. Brand has professed his healthiness and loves how Collins has been able to get him the ball in good spots. He was the team's leading scorer and rebounder last season, while not having the ball in his hands as much as he had previously in his career.

* Will the first-round pick provide anything? Right off the bat, big-man Nikola Vucevic probably will be penciled in for about 15 minutes a night. He plays a smart man's game, always helpful when trying to make the transition to the NBA. If his progress is slow, the Sixers might have veteran Tony Battie (perhaps a veteran minimum signing?) to take some of the minutes until Vucevic gets settled.

* Is there someone else in the mix? Just keep an eye on how Collins uses second-year swingman Craig Brackins. He is an interesting player who can provide matchup problems to opponents, and Collins loves to exploit matchup problems.


A source said there will be six nonroster players at camp, but could not release their names as of yet, per league orders . . . The Sixers will practice from 4 to 7 tonight at PCOM and have a double-session there on Saturday, then move to Saint Joseph's for sessions Sunday through Wednesday. The first of two preseason games is next Friday at the Washington Wizards. The Wizards will visit the Sixers on Dec. 20.