By Mike Wise
Friday, March 7, 2008
Of all the stories explaining why the watered-down Wizards have been able to stay afloat in spite of major misfortune, DeShawn Stevenson's defines his team the most.
He came into the NBA at 19, levitating near the rim -- a new-jack kid drafted by the old and crotchety Utah Jazz. Within four years, he had predictably butted heads with Coach Jerry Sloan and eventually ended up in Orlando.
Stevenson had been called a young knucklehead. He had been told all the things he wanted to hear from family and friends -- "They're crazy if they don't play you" -- and none of the things he needed to hear about how to work to find his niche and survive in the league.
"If you look at my old film, anywhere near the basket it was a dunk," Stevenson mused the other day after practice. "I can dunk now and do things, but I don't have that explosion I've always had since I was a kid. My game had to change. I had to change."
He learned to play defense, getting in the grille of some of the game's most talented guards. He developed a deadeye, spot-up jumper from 25 feet and in. He subjugated his ego, too, realizing he was never going to be thought of as the wunderkind from Fresno, Calif., anymore. But that was okay. Eight years later -- in a ridiculously young league where a player a month shy of 27 can be called a hardened veteran -- he has a job.
"There are guys out there -- I hate to say his name, J.R. Smith -- that are stuck on wanting to be Carmelo [Anthony] and stuff," Stevenson said. "You got to be yourself. You got to get your own niche in the league."
Looking back, Stevenson's tale of adaptation and adjustment is just like the Wizards'?
If anyone had said Gilbert Arenas was on pace to miss more than 60 games this season after knee surgery and Caron Butler will probably miss 20 or more with a hip malady and that the Wizards would still toy with .500 and be on track to earn the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, that person would have been laughed out of any room.
Eddie Jordan has had every alibi available, including Etan Thomas's possibly season-ending heart surgery. And yet the Wizards' coach and his staff have thus far turned in their most masterful job since coming to Washington in 2003.
The Wizards swept season series with Western Conference heavyweights such as the Hornets and the Mavericks. With Butler but not Arenas, they have beaten the full-strength Celtics twice, too. They came back from 20 down at Chicago last Saturday and won. Before it laid an egg against Orlando at home on Wednesday, Washington had won four of five and resisted every opportunity to throw away its season after a late-January and early-February swoon.
The character of Antawn Jamison and Antonio Daniels is part of it. Brendan Haywood's turnaround cannot be discounted. But it's the guy whom every fan wanted out of town after last year's four-game sweep to Cleveland in the playoffs (during which he shot 19 percent) -- wasn't the one-sided argument that Juan Carlos Navarro was the future at shooting guard? -- that most embodies the Wizards' ability to change direction on the fly.
After all, that's all Stevenson has known since he was drafted.
"He found what he was good at," Arenas said. "I know when he was younger, DeShawn was more of a dunker, scorer. Right now he turned himself into a defender and an outside shooter to keep himself in this league. You have to find that niche."
Stevenson has the league's third-longest current ironman streak -- having played in 228 consecutive games -- behind Bruce Bowen and Tayshaun Prince. With 106 three-pointers this season, he's on pace to eclipse his career total of 127 made during the prior seven seasons. More than that, he's been indispensable as a tough-as-nails defender on the perimeter.
Among Ernie Grunfeld's great finds and series of accomplishments as an NBA executive -- signing a free agent such as Anthony Mason in New York, plucking Michael Redd in the second round in Milwaukee, swapping Kwame Brown for Caron Butler -- the acquisition of Stevenson for a paltry $900,000 last year could be among the Wizards president's most important.
"He's a glue guy, a real warrior," Grunfeld said. "He did have to find a niche in the league. He learned a lot from John Stockton [in Utah]. He's definitely matured. Bottom line, you can't teach competitiveness, you can't teach toughness and you can't teach pride. And those are great qualities that he has."
Stevenson remembers the beginning of the end in Utah, when he had to change. It was his fourth year under the taskmaster Sloan. He was coming off the bench and playing important minutes. But they got into a verbal altercation during the playoffs that led to Stevenson's suspension for a game.
"I wasn't a rookie, but to them if you don't have six years and up you're a rookie," he said. "We were watching film and I looked down. He caught me when I was looking down and said, 'Watch the film.'
"I was like, 'I thought I was watching film.' "
They worked out their disagreements and now respect each other.
"We used to go back and forth but I appreciate it now," he said. "It made me a man. Being that young, I think I needed somebody. A lot of high school guys come in with a lot of hype and they don't want to listen to nobody. They get put in a situation where they get to do anything."
Asked if he wished he could go back and tell that young, stubborn kid what he knows now, Stevenson nodded.
"Yeah, I could have put a lot of money in my pocket," he said, smiling. "But at the same time I think you got to go through trials and tribulations to see where you're at. If I knew then what I know now -- the first year I got in the league -- I'd probably be a different player and have a different role."
His knee blew up like a watermelon on a recent West Coast trip, and Stevenson still played as if he were on a 10-day contract rather than in the first year of a multimillion dollar deal.
And there are nights now -- like last week against New Orleans -- when Stevenson is counted on to be a star. He scored a career-high 33 points, his last three-pointer winning the game at the buzzer as his teammates leapt from the bench and embraced him.
Moments like those make a career of waiting and changing that much sweeter.
"My body feels older, but I still feel young," Stevenson said. "Now I look at it like this: I'm fortunate to even be in the league for eight years. That's rare, you know."