By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2007
The Washington Wizards knew they had a project on their hands when they drafted Andray Blatche from prep school with the 49th pick in the 2005 NBA draft. The 6-foot-11 forward didn't start playing organized basketball until his freshman year of high school, but lately he has been showing tangible signs that the team's investment was a wise one.
The latest evidence was provided during Monday's 118-108 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics, when Blatche scored a career-high 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting and added seven rebounds, an assist and a steal in 17 high-energy minutes.
Blatche and reserve center Calvin Booth helped spark a third-quarter push that turned a close game into a comfortable win for the Wizards. Blatche, who has appeared in 29 of 47 games this season after appearing in 29 games as a rookie last season, contributed in several ways.
He scored on layups and slam dunks, kept several possessions alive by beating Seattle players to offensive rebounds and loose balls, and even drew "oohs" from the crowd with a no-look pass that Booth squandered by missing a layup.
In the past two games, Blatche has 21 points and 12 rebounds, and Monday's performance likely earned him more action tonight when the Wizards host the San Antonio Spurs.
Since training camp, Jordan and his staff have told Blatche that the keys to earning minutes would be playing with a high energy level while concentrating on rebounding and playing defense.
"He's just beginning," Jordan said after Monday's game. "If he understands that is what he needs to do, then everything else comes a little bit easier. You have to play at a high energy level and you have to concentrate. You have to retain what we are trying to do and apply it. If you play hard, then good things will happen for you. We saw how easy the game can be for him tonight."
Jordan is looking for players to raise the level of their play in the absence of forward Antawn Jamison, who will miss his fourth straight game tonight with a sprained right knee. With Jamison expected to miss between three and six weeks, Blatche, Booth, Darius Songaila and Jarvis Hayes will rotate at Jamison's forward spot.
Blatche remains a work in progress -- there still are times when he gets out of position defensively and he has a habit of making one-handed passes that wind up being stolen -- but seems to be gaining confidence with each taste of game action.
Blatche admitted that he got a little too caught up in how he performed last summer, when he averaged 26.8 points and 10 rebounds in six games during the Summer Pro League in Las Vegas. He played poorly during the preseason when Jordan gave him heavy minutes.
"Yeah, I kind of took that and ran with it," Blatche said of the attention he drew following the summer league. "It souped my head up some. I had to step back to reality coming back to the Wizards because we have a lot of great players, all-stars, and I had to just concentrate on playing my role."
In some ways, Blatche is in a difficult position because on a struggling team such as Atlanta, Boston or Seattle, he'd get heavy minutes and be allowed to play through mistakes. The Wizards are shooting for a third consecutive playoff berth and have a chance to grab the top seed in the Eastern Conference, so Blatche's margin for error is far smaller.
Guard DeShawn Stevenson was in a similar position as a young player with the Utah Jazz. He was drafted directly from high school and learned the NBA game while playing for a playoff contender that was built around future Hall of Famers John Stockton and Karl Malone.
"It can be tough because if you go out there and make one bad move, coach is going to pull you out," Stevenson said. "You can be out there timid. [Monday night Blatche] played through it and played hard. When he goes out there and finds his niche -- and for me personally, I think that's rebounding and being active on defense -- he can be a good player in this league."
Wizards Vice President of Player Personnel Milt Newton observed yesterday's practice and feels that Blatche is coming along nicely, though the best is yet to come.
"It's like Legos," Newton said. "He's building one piece at a time."