Ever since the Washington Wizards officially started their rebuilding efforts in February 2010 by trading Caron Butler to Dallas, the small forward position has been a revolving door for players overcome with injuries, inconsistency and inexperience.
Josh Howard was a solid replacement — for 31 / 2 games — before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, derailing his stint in Washington and placing his career on a downward trajectory. Al Thornton came next, but his Wizards tenure was best encapsulated when he was struck by a car while walking to his hotel room during training camp at George Mason.
The Wizards traded Gilbert Arenas to Orlando for the overpriced Rashard Lewis, whose time in Washington was undone by brittle knees and an inability to mentally recover from being dealt from a playoff contender to a perennial loser.
Chris Singleton took the reins as a rookie last season, almost by default, and was overwhelmed by nightly onslaughts from all-stars such as Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce.
“I didn’t know they were going to come at me like they did,” Singleton said, recalling last season. “I think they looked before the game and were like ‘Who’s the new kid?’ Saw the ‘R’ besides my name. They brought everything at me.”
Singleton believes the experience of starting 57 games as a rookie helped expedite his growth, but the Wizards also decided that they needed to enter training camp with more alternatives. They traded Lewis to New Orleans last June for Trevor Ariza and signed Martell Webster after he secured a contract buyout from Minnesota, giving them two experienced small forwards with different skill sets in their mid-20s.
With Singleton’s improvement, Coach Randy Wittman has three small forward options. Wittman said he hasn’t decided which player will start, but Ariza makes the most sense given his experience (239 career starts), salary ($7.3 million, which ranks third-highest on the roster) and championship ring (he started for the Los Angeles Lakers during their 2009 title run). Ariza, 27, has been working mostly with the likely first group through the first few days of practice, but he hasn’t taken anything for granted.
“I don’t expect for anybody to expect anything. Just come in and work for everything they get,” said Ariza, adding that positions are starting spots are rarely etched in stone in the NBA, except “when you’re playing with Kobe [Bryant]. That’s pretty much it.”
On his sixth team in nine seasons, Ariza has averaged double figures in each of his past three seasons since leaving his hometown Lakers in free agency, but his shooting percentages have also dipped, as he shouldered more of the scoring burden in Houston and New Orleans. With John Wall and Nene injured, Ariza said he doesn’t plan to play outside of himself but is prepared to give more.
“I envision myself doing what I’m capable of doing and whatever the coach asks of me,” said Ariza, who averaged a career 14.9 points in 2009-10 as an offensive focal point in Houston. “If that’s what I need to do, I'm going to do my best to try.”
Webster, a seven-year veteran at just 25, is hoping to rediscover his old form after having three of the past four seasons disrupted by back and foot problems. He said his body is the best it has felt in five years, when he averaged a career-high 10.7 points and started 70 games in Portland.
“This is a legit chance to show what I can do,” he said.
The Wizards added Webster primarily because he is a career 37.4-percent three-point shooter and had a solid workout for the team last August. Webster said he is grateful for the chance.
“That’s the best thing,” Webster said. “When you think about it, even if you don’t make that starting position you’ve got to understand you’re deep. It’s not just about the starting five on the court. We’ve got five other guys that can sub in and continue to get the job done. What fun is it with no competition?”
Singleton, 22, graded himself a “D” after finishing last season with a player efficiency rating of 8.34, the eighth-worst among qualified small forwards. So he wasn’t upset or discouraged when the Wizards added players who might jump ahead of him in the rotation.
“You got to kill or be killed in this league,” Singleton said. “I mean, it’s part of the industry. People are going to make moves. Somebody is always going to come in to take your spot. But I like the moves. We’re deeper, got more quality players here.”
Cartier Martin, the Wizards’ best three-point shooter last season, is also in the mix for minutes at small forward, so the 6-foot-9 Singleton also might see playing time at power forward if the Wizards decide to play smaller. Singleton said he expects to be more aggressive on both ends of the floor.
“I got thrown into the fire, so going into the season, I know what to expect. I’m a veteran now,” he said. “I played [all 66] games. Not a lot of guys get that opportunity in this league. My first year, I got that. And this year, I’m going to take advantage of that, as much as possible.”