By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008
When the Washington Wizards face Pau Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies at Verizon Center tonight, they'll also confront a crucial decision the team made this summer.
Grizzlies guard Juan Carlos Navarro was drafted in the second round of the 2002 draft by the Wizards but never played for the franchise. He developed his game in Europe and this summer, after F.C. Barcelona's ownership finally cleared the way for him to get out of his contract so he could test himself in the NBA, the Wizards traded Navarro's rights to the Grizzlies in exchange for a conditional future draft pick.
It's not that Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld didn't like Navarro's game -- Grunfeld and his staff scouted Navarro extensively and felt that he could be an effective scorer in the NBA -- but the organization's financial priorities were to retain shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson and to develop young big man Andray Blatche.
Grunfeld succeeded in signing both to long-term contracts and also drafted shooting guard Nick Young. All three have helped the Wizards (22-18) remain competitive despite the absence of three-time all-star Gilbert Arenas.
Navarro, meanwhile, has played well for the struggling Grizzlies (12-30).
The streaky 27-year-old is averaging 10.7 points on 43.7 percent shooting and ranks among the top five rookies in several categories. On Nov. 16, Navarro tied a rookie record by making eight three-pointers in nine attempts against New Orleans and, on Nov. 24, he helped the Grizzlies beat the Wizards, 124-118, by matching a season high with 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting.
"He's got an uncanny way of playing, especially at the offensive end," Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan said. "He shoots floaters and he'll take some awkward looking threes that you wouldn't think he'd take or make and he does both, so he's definitely a unique player for us to face."
Navarro's long-range shooting, often unorthodox shot-making and crafty passing skills earned him the nickname "La Bomba."
"In Spain, he is one of the most popular athletes," said Toronto guard Jose Calderon, who plays with Navarro and Gasol on Spain's national team. "Pau and the other guys are also big but Juan Carlos is special because he played in Barcelona for so long and his game is so unique."
Tonight, when the Wizards attempt to bounce back from an ugly 121-85 loss at Cleveland on Wednesday night, Stevenson will likely spend some time defending Navarro, who primarily comes off the bench.
Stevenson, who signed a four-year, $15 million contract in July, typically defends the opponent's top scorer and is averaging 9.5 points on 39.2 percent shooting with 3.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds.
Stevenson, Blatche and Antawn Jamison are the only Wizards who have played in all 40 games. Stevenson helped the Wizards pull out a recent win at Atlanta by playing tenacious defense on all-star Joe Johnson, he checked Boston's Ray Allen in a pair of wins over the Celtics and helped put Dallas away on Monday with a pair of fourth-quarter three-pointers.
"When he gets going like that, we call him the sizzler," Jordan said. "But what he really does is bring us a heck of a defensive presence. He's our defensive leader in a sense and because he's out front, we follow his lead. When he's closing out and being aggressive, it becomes contagious and we kind of copy him. He's been an unsung hero for us."
Stevenson is pleased with the way things turned out this summer as well. He earned a level of financial security after signing a one-year deal worth less than $1 million with the Wizards prior to the 2006-07 season, and he relishes the role Jordan has laid out for him.
"The way I look at it, we're winning games right now by playing defense, by sharing the ball and by making big shots when we need it," Stevenson said before Wednesday's loss to Cleveland. "We're playing good basketball and we're playing together and I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Wizards Notes: The conditional pick acquired in the Navarro trade is top 19-protected in next summer's draft, meaning the Grizzlies keep the pick if they finish with one of the worst 19 records. The pick is top 16-protected in 2009, top 14-protected from 2010 to 2012 and top 12-protected in 2013. If the Wizards have not received the pick by 2013, they will receive a second-round pick or cash considerations. . . .
Arenas participated in a spirited game of H.O.R.S.E. with several teammates after practice yesterday and continues to make progress on his surgically repaired left knee.