Fans at MCI Center paid to see a game between the Washington Wizards and the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night, but they actually got to see the latest episode of "The Maturation of Gilbert Arenas" -- a show about the Wizards point guard's progression from a scorer with street ball tendencies to a decision maker with a scoring touch.
The growth was in Arenas's ability to take over the game offensively and notch a season-high 34 points; in his willingness to keep forward Antawn Jamison involved on a night when Jamison's shot wasn't falling; in his toughness to play through pain in his left ankle and stiffness in his lower back and left calf; and in his intelligence to realize when it was best to give his aching body a rest with 38 seconds left.
Gilbert Arenas has been around the basket on a regular basis for Washington this season, averging a team-high 21.9 points per game.
(Nick Wass - AP)
At the end of the 95-88 victory, one lucky fan left with Arenas's No. 0 jersey after Arenas had walked into the stands and tossed it into the crowd. And Jamison, one of the Wizards' three captains, left with a newfound respect for the player he helped welcome into the league three years ago with the Golden State Warriors.
"I was definitely impressed," said Jamison, who played two seasons with Arenas in Golden State before being reunited with him in Washington this season. "In the middle of the game, I was saying, 'That's the way to be a leader.' He's understanding when he needs to step up; he's understanding when to get other people involved. And I've really seen a growth throughout the season. He made me a believer. I already believed in his abilities, but he showed me something in that game."
Arenas yesterday became the first Wizards player since Michael Jordan to be named Eastern Conference player of the week after averaging 25.6 points, 5.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 steals in the past three wins. Arenas, 22, said he accepted the award on behalf of his teammates.
"It's a 'we' thing," Arenas said. "I'm not going out there scoring 110 points, stopping every player, getting every block. You know everybody is doing their job to help to win this game. If I averaged 45, 7 and 7, and we lost every game, there wouldn't have been an award, but everything comes with winning."
Coach Eddie Jordan said he has noticed a difference in Arenas, who is tied with Jamison for the team lead in scoring average (21.9). Arenas is playing under control -- after committing 20 turnovers in his first three games, he has just 26 in the past 11.
"He is running the team, yet finding ways to score himself," Jordan said. "He's matured greatly from where we saw him last year. He's improved professionally and as a player. He's much better at reading the defense and delivering the play. He didn't have that in his game before."
When Arenas arrived in Washington in the summer of 2003 after signing a six-year, $65 million contract, he boldly declared that the Wizards would go to the playoffs, not knowing exactly what it took to get there. He struggled to grasp Jordan's version of the Princeton offense, a pass-oriented, ball-movement style of play that involves all five players on the court. Despite impressive offensive statistics, Arenas drew more attention to himself for his antics -- throwing a ball into the stands in Cleveland, sparring with Philadelphia's Samuel Dalembert, getting ejected from a game when he was in street clothes -- than for his considerable talents.
Arenas also was forced to miss 27 games because of a severe abdominal strain. The Wizards won just 25 games all season.
"Last year was frustrating," he said. "It was the year after Michael Jordan left. They didn't know what to expect of themselves. I just got here, I didn't know what to expect from them. And you know you're just clashing. I had just signed my contract, there was still that little thing inside you saying, 'You need to prove it.' "
But Arenas said he is more relaxed this season, comforted that he is healthy and surrounded by capable scorers in Jamison, Larry Hughes and Jarvis Hayes.
"He realizes that he does have talent around him, that he doesn't have to do it himself," Hughes said. "That's big."
Arenas is well known for being eccentric, but those same qualities have helped him develop as a player this season. He works on his game at odd hours, showing up at MCI Center at any time of the night -- "Whenever I get bored," he said. "One, two, three in the morning." -- to shoot free throws or three-pointers, two areas where his game has shown improvement.
Arenas is shooting a career-high 84.1 percent from the free throw line this season and 43 percent (34 of 79) from beyond the three-point line. "He has the weirdest individual training regimen," Jordan said. "You need a whole month to talk about the complexities of Gilbert Arenas. . . . [But] he's highly competitive, a terrific athlete and he's working on his skills. He's got a whole lot to go because he's got so much talent."