By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
Antawn Jamison smirked and paused before addressing a question he knew was coming: Will this be the season that the Washington Wizards truly make a commitment to playing defense?
"That's one of those things where I'm not going to talk about it because like everyone else, I'm pretty much tired of just talking about it," Jamison said. "Everyone knows what our weaknesses are, so we just have to go out there and get it done. We have to be more consistent at that end of the court, especially late in games. It's something we have to take seriously."
After finishing near the bottom of the league in several defensive categories last season -- including points allowed (104.9 per game) and opponent's field goal shooting percentage (47.3 percent) -- improving the defense will once again be a major emphasis as the Wizards open training camp this morning in Richmond.
Coach Eddie Jordan said this month, which includes one week of training camp on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and eight preseason games, "will be all about defense."
Jordan believes that the team's familiarity with his system -- all five starters return as well as key reserves such as Antonio Daniels, Darius Songaila and Andray Blatche -- and the addition of new assistant coach Randy Ayers, will lead to a better performance once the regular season opens Oct. 31 at Indiana.
Last season, Ayers was an assistant with the Orlando Magic, which ranked seventh in points allowed (94.0 points per game) while reaching the playoffs, and he was previously an assistant under Larry Brown with defensive-minded Philadelphia 76ers teams that reached the playoffs five straight seasons.
Still, Jordan, who has led the Wizards to three straight playoff appearances largely because of a high-powered offense that is built around the scoring of Jamison, Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas, understands that fans will be skeptical until the Wizards play defense rather than just talk about it.
After hearing such talk for three years, why should this season be any different?
"I didn't say that it's going to be different," Jordan joked. "I said we are going to try to be better. Again. We're going to do more in training camp; and when you think we've had enough, we're going to do more."
The key, according to several players, will be playing more solid team defense and better utilizing the athletic talent that has made the Wizards so dangerous offensively in recent seasons.
Arenas is as quick as any guard in the league but is considered by most scouts to be a below-average defender, Daniels and DeShawn Stevenson have earned reputations as fundamentally sound perimeter defenders, and Butler ranked among the league leaders in steals last season (2.1 per game).
The bench includes a nice mix of veteran big men such as Darius Songaila and talented young players who possess size and quickness like Blatche and rookies Nick Young, Dominic McGuire and Oleksiy Pecherov.
"We're all good athletes, so we know that we have it in us," Songaila said. "At times we've done it and we know we can do it, so it's just a matter of doing it over and over again. Consistency is the key."
This week and throughout the preseason, practices will focus on containing opposing guards off the dribble, boxing out and grabbing defensive rebounds, and closing out on shooters in half-court situations.
Improvement in those areas will be crucial this season because the Wizards will face a beefed-up Eastern Conference that now includes offensive stars such as Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett with the Boston Celtics, Zach Randolph with the New York Knicks, Rashard Lewis with the Magic and Jason Richardson with the Charlotte Bobcats.
Because so many core players return from last season, Jordan and his veteran players feel that they will be able to place extra emphasis on defense without hurting the offense.
"We don't have to go over the plays so much," Butler said. "Guys know what's going on, they know the system, and they know the style of play we want. The main focus will be defense. How to protect the paint, what your assignment is going to be and having everyone on the same page as far as what defense we are in. We have to get better if we're going to be the kind of team we want to be."
Wizards Notes: Yesterday, center Brendan Haywood said he never asked for a trade following last season and he also addressed the status of his relationship with Jordan and Etan Thomas, with whom Haywood has had at least three physical altercations during the last two seasons.
"I never came out and said I didn't want to be here," Haywood said. "There were a lot of articles written, but there was never a direct quote from myself or [team president] Ernie Grunfeld about what was said in our meeting. So, like I said, if you didn't hear it from me, it's not the truth. I'm happy to be here and we'll see what goes on during the season."
Haywood also said that he doesn't expect to have any more problems with Thomas as the two compete for the starting center job.
"I told somebody that Ali and Frazier only fought three times so that has to be the end of it for me and Etan," Haywood said. "At the end of the day, we both have a mutual respect for each other and we realize that we embarrass ourselves, our team and our families every time we go out there and act silly. You can always talk things out before you fight. Besides, he's a peace activist so he can't do that anyway." Thomas was excused from media day for personal reasons. . . .
The team extended training camp invitations to three players, including former University of Maryland forward-center Tony Massenburg, who has played for NBA teams since leaving College Park in 1990. The team also added Jamon Gordon, a rookie guard from Virginia Tech, and guard Willie Deane, who played in Russia last season.