Blatche on Mission in Wizards' Summer League Win

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By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 2008

LAS VEGAS, July 18 -- As a player entering his fourth NBA season, Wizards forward Andray Blatche does not have to be inside a college team's gym sweating it out with rookies, unproven young players and free agent hopefuls in the NBA Summer League.

Yet, there was Blatche on Friday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, posting a game-high 22 points with nine rebounds and two blocks in just less than 28 minutes as the Wizards held on for a 72-69 win.

Blatche's mesh jersey was soaked with sweat as he walked off the court, but he had a huge smile plastered across his face.

"That's what I came out here for, to get some wins and to work on my game and my conditioning while playing a lot of basketball," said Blatche, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday next month. "Cleveland, they got us again in the playoffs last season, so tonight, it was important for us to come out, play hard and win this game."

The victory improved the Wizards to 1-2 in the league. But the week is about more than wins and losses for a summer squad that is built around the talented but raw core of Blatche, last season's rookie duo of Nick Young and Dominic McGuire and rookie first-round pick JaVale McGee, who chipped in with 11 points and three rebounds Friday night.

The Wizards also hoped to further develop forward Oleksiy Pecherov, who appeared in 35 games as a rookie last season, but Pecherov will miss the entire league schedule with a sprained left ankle.

The Wizards will face Houston on Saturday night and conclude league play on Sunday against Phoenix.

Because the Wizards used the vast majority of their financial resources to re-sign free agents Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison this summer, the best way for the team to close the gap on its Eastern Conference rivals will be to get more out of players such as Blatche, Young, McGuire and Pecherov.

Blatche, who averaged a career-high 7.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 82 games last season and posted 11.5 points and 8.1 rebounds in 15 games as a starter, is a true wild card. His talents never have been questioned, but the organization wants more consistency, a higher level of physical conditioning and a more professional approach on and off the court from a player who signed a five-year, $15 million contract last summer.

Blatche said he understands what is expected of him and that is why he asked to play in summer league.

"The main thing is conditioning," said Blatche, who sometimes tired noticeably after playing long stretches during his first three NBA seasons. "My conditioning has been my biggest fault. So, I felt that if I came out here and worked real hard, it would help me get ready and more prepared for the season."

Blatche, who could be considered the veteran on the summer league roster even though he is actually younger than Young, McGuire and Pecherov, then flashed a grin.

"And," he continued, "I get to take more shots out here."

Blatche was solid in the first summer league games -- losses to Portland and Philadelphia -- by averaging 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds while making 11 of 21 shots, but he was clearly more assertive Friday night and finally looked like the best player on the floor, which is what he should look like, given his experience.

In one sequence, Blatche reached out to snag a defensive rebound and then dribbled at a fast speed in the other direction before finishing the play with a swooping layup. During another, he scored on a pretty jump hook over rookie J.J. Hickson and then added a three-pointer from the wing.

The Wizards would love nothing more than to see Blatche consistently makes those kinds of plays when the regular season opens. As for Friday night, summer league coach Wes Unseld Jr. was simply pleased to see his team cut down on turnovers and compete with poise down the stretch.

After turning the ball over 43 times in the first two games, the Wizards committed 10 miscues Friday night and with the game on the line in the closing seconds, Blatche, McGuire and rookie Gary Forbes came up with key plays to make the difference.

"Summer league, it's great to win but that's not what it's all about," Unseld said. "It's about the maturation process. We should see improvement every day from our first practice until this point all the way until we finish on Sunday. Then, you want to see that progress carry over to October when we open training camp."

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