He could have, as the shortest-tenured member of the team after signing a 10-day contract in February following Nene’s injury. And perhaps, as an unrestricted free agent who’s bounced among nine NBA teams, he should have. But for the first time in his 12-year career, Gooden has found a place that he feels comfortable calling home.
“I’m going to be coming in here working out and staying here locally, which is the first of any team, any season I’ve played,” said Gooden, who averaged 6.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in 32 games for the Wizards. “I’ve never lived in that NBA city, so this is new to me, but this is my home so we’ll see what happens.”
Stuck in limbo after being cut by Milwaukee last summer, Gooden had been splitting his time between Orlando and Bethesda, where his girlfriend works. The Wizards opened the Verizon Center doors to him, allowing him to work out while the team was on the road and stay ready should a team call on him.
That call came in February. The Wizards trusted Gooden to slide into the rotation, becoming a necessary vocal leader and physical presence for a team that defied history by making its first playoff appearance in six years and ultimately winning a game in the second round for the first time in more than 30 years.
“I kind of feel like I had my own Tim Tebow, Jeremy Lin season this year,” Gooden said with a smile. “Not playing and then coming on a team with a 10-day contract, and then to be right here in front of you guys talking about how well we did in the playoffs. That’s just a long shot, looking at it when I was out working out in October, November and December. You wouldn’t know what the future might hold. But to be right here during these exit interviews and physicals on a team that had a chance to compete in the Eastern Conference finals, I’m flattered.”
Indeed, at times Gooden’s short journey with the Wizards seemed to be sprinkled with a touch of fairy dust. Nearly a year had passed between his last NBA appearance with Milwaukee, on April 6, 2013, and his first points with the Wizards four games into his stint. Then he exploded for double-digit performances in eight of the next 10 contests, becoming one part of the trio affectionately known as the “AARP Group” — although Gooden, 32, was quick to remind to everyone that unlike Andre Miller and Al Harrington, he was only two years older than Marcin Gortat.
And after playing sparingly in the Wizards’ first-round series against Chicago, including a “DNP-Coach’s Decision” in the Game 5 clincher, Wizards Coach Randy Wittman looked to Gooden to spark Washington off the bench in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series with Indiana. True to his knack for staying ready, Gooden responded, becoming the first player in the shot-clock era to have at least 12 points and 13 rebounds in just 18 minutes of play.
“Drew, one thing I know he’s going to do when he’s in there, he’s going to battle for rebounds,” Wittman said during the Pacers series.
The desire and grit displayed by Gooden was a far cry from his first stop in Washington. After being traded from Dallas to the Wizards in 2010, Gooden made known his disinterest in playing for a franchise trying to rebuild amid the fallout of the Gilbert Arenas situation. A few days later, Gooden was gone, shipped off to the Los Angeles Clippers.
In his second stint in D.C., the Wizards inherited a hardworking veteran boasting NBA Finals experience from his time playing alongside LeBron James during Cleveland’s run to the 2007 NBA Finals. Gooden, meantime, had acquired the wisdom to better appreciate opportunities.
“One thing I always talk to you guys about throughout the course of my year is always trying to fix the cards that I was dealt, not playing my hand, and that was the outcome of being on multiple teams and different situations for me,” Gooden said. “So I’m definitely this summer going to be playing the hand that I’m dealt. I’m not going to fix any cards.”
Though few would deem it as consistent, Gooden’s ability to stretch the floor with his mid-range jumper (just ask Aaron Rodgers) and his crafty play in the paint makes him an invaluable commodity as a stretch power forward in the NBA. It’s what allowed the Wizards to remain afloat during the absence of Nene, also a stretch forward, and what makes him a player that the Wizards will seriously consider re-signing, somewhat as an insurance policy for the injury-prone Nene.
In some ways, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Gooden is a tweener who, as evidenced by his journeyman status in the NBA, has struggled to fit in at the pro level. And the Wizards certainly have younger options to pursue and develop in free agent forwards Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin. Yet when examining the numbers over his 12-year career with averages of 11.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, it’s safe to say Gooden knows how to make an impact just about everywhere he goes.
He relentlessly boxes out opponents for rebounds, seeks out hustle opportunities and has a mentorship capacity that could only help rising stars like John Wall and Bradley Beal as the Wizards look to become a consistent playoff contender.
“I think where I started and where I finished is night and day and it’s going to be a storied season that’s definitely memorable for me as a player,” Gooden said. “Loyalty to me, I’ll never forget those who have helped me in the past ever. The Wizards organization has definitely helped me and my family this season and gave me a chance when no other team gave me a chance, so that’s something I’ll never forget.”