By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Sports Writer
Tuesday, October 3, 2006
On those rare nights last season when the Washington Wizards entered the fourth quarter at Verizon Center holding a comfortable lead, fans sitting behind the Wizards' bench begged Coach Eddie Jordan to "put in the kid."
On a few occasions, Jordan obliged. Jordan would signal for rookie forward Andray Blatche, who was less than a year removed from playing at a prep school in Connecticut.
In those moments, the 6-foot-11 Blatche would pop up, adjust his headband and jump onto the court like an eager puppy. Blatche appeared in 29 games and occasionally flashed the ability that encouraged the Wizards to draft him in the second round (49th overall). But mostly he was a late-game novelty on a veteran playoff team.
Starting with this morning's first training camp practice in Richmond, Blatche plans on changing that.
"I'm looking at this camp as my opportunity," said Blatche, who turned 20 in August. "I have to go out there and show what type of player I am. I feel that people didn't get the chance to see what I could do last year. I'm excited."
Blatche missed all of training camp and the preseason as a rookie after he was shot during an attempted carjacking Sept. 25, 2005, near his home in Alexandria.
A bullet ripped through a part of Blatche's right forearm, entered his left pectoral and exited the left side of his ribcage. On its way through his body, the bullet missed Blatche's heart by an inch.
Blatche was released from the hospital after a few days and was able to watch part of training camp from the stands, but the wounds caused by the shooting ruined any chance he had of making an impact as a rookie. (No arrests have been made and the case remains open, according to a spokesman with the Alexandria police department.)
While the arm wound healed quickly enough for Blatche to do shooting drills by November, the injuries to his chest made it difficult for Blatche to breathe properly, and his conditioning suffered.
"In a lot of ways, I look at this as his rookie year," all-star guard Gilbert Arenas said. "Last year at this time he was just lucky to be alive, forget basketball. Now, he's had a season under his belt, a whole summer and he's going to get a training camp and preseason games. People don't understand how important that is for a young player, especially for a kid who was just out of" prep school.
One thing Blatche did learn last year was that the NBA lifestyle did not live up to the hype. True, teams fly in comfortable conditions and stay in first-class hotels. But the seemingly endless loop of practices, shoot-arounds, games and flights is enough to test any athlete, let alone a 19-year-old who was coming off a 40-game prep school schedule.
"It's no joke up here, man," Blatche said. "I came into it thinking: 'I'm in the NBA. It's going to be fun.' But let me tell you, it's for real up here. There were times I was so tired, I couldn't even move. Sometimes you'd wake up and not even know what city you were in. I'd forget what day it was, who we were playing. Then you'd go to practice and couldn't even move your legs. It's a whole different world in this league. I learned that last year."
The Wizards hope those experiences, combined with a full year in the team's strength and conditioning program, will have Blatche ready to tap his strengths, namely sublime ballhandling ability for a man his size, a smooth shooting stroke and great passing instincts.
Those skills were on full display when Blatche sparkled on the team's summer league squad. For the first time as a pro, Blatche had a chance to play through mistakes and the offense mostly ran through him, fellow second-year player Donell Taylor and rookie forward Oleksiy Pecherov, who will play this season in Ukraine.
Blatche averaged 16 points and 6.2 rebounds in five games in the Las Vegas Summer League before posting 26.8 points and 10 rebounds in four games in the Long Beach Summer Pro League.
"For me, summer league was a chance to impress the coaches, to show them that I could play," Blatche said. "They wanted to see me do certain things they want me to do during the season like play defense, run the floor and rebound, and I had a chance to do that."
Blatche's mother, Angela Oliver, said she sensed a difference in her son following his summer league experience.
"I see it in his whole attitude," said Oliver, who travels from her home in South Carolina for most Wizards' homestands. "He's more mature now. More focused. He knows what to do. He's aware of his body fat. He's aware of what he puts in his mouth. He works out even when he's home. He just -- it just seems like he's grown up so much this last year. I'm just so thankful for everything the Wizards have done for him. I truly feel that he's in the perfect place right now."
The next step will be taking the summer league experience and transferring it to games that truly matter. Blatche will have a week of camp and eight preseason games to earn a spot in Jordan's rotation before the Wizards open the regular season Nov. 1 at Cleveland.
"It's going to be interesting to see how Andray reacts in training camp and preseason; that's going to be the true test," Jordan said. "He's gotten better conditioning-wise. He played very well in summer league, but that doesn't automatically translate. We like what he did and how he's improved physically, mentally and emotionally, but the test is: Can he get through training camp when the real dogs are out there biting and how will he react in preseason games going against NBA players?"
Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld and Jordan have talked about a future lineup that might include Blatche and the 7-foot Pecherov, whom Blatche tagged "Pesh" this summer.
While Pecherov spends at least one more season developing overseas, the team would like to see Blatche make strides with the Wizards this season. Blatche is one reason why the Wizards declined to retain guard-forward Jared Jeffries this summer, and that decision will look wise if Blatche grows into a contributing player.
"At the end of the day, players tell you what to do, and Andray's going to tell us what to do by his performance in training camp," Grunfeld said.
Blatche, who aspires to be an all-star, is eager to take advantage of the opportunity.
"The NBA forces you to grow up fast," Blatche said. "After what I went through last year, I pretty much feel like I'm an adult now. I'm ready."