By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008
The Wizards had 17 players dressed in crisp white home uniforms for media day, but much of the conversation focused on one guy who wasn't around: injured guard Gilbert Arenas.
Arenas, who is expected to be out at least the first month of the season as he strengthens his knee following arthroscopic knee surgery, did not make himself available to the media and was fined $15,000 by the NBA. The Wizards were also fined $15,000 for not making Arenas available.
Even though Arenas didn't speak, his absence and how the Wizards plan to handle it was the day's top topic of discussion.
"He's going to work hard, get his knee right and come back when he's ready to come back," starting shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson said of Arenas, who was present yesterday and plans to go with the team to Richmond for training camp. "Until then, it's up to us to play good basketball, win games and keep us going. . . . We need to go out there and understand that if Gilbert's here, it's a great thing. And if not, we're just going to have to work a little bit harder."
That about sums up the mood of Coach Eddie Jordan's team as it prepares for the opening of training camp today at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Several players pointed to the presence of all-star forwards Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, a deep roster and chemistry that was formed when Arenas missed 69 games last season as reasons why Wizards fans should feel optimistic heading into the season.
The starting unit of Stevenson, Butler, Jamison, Antonio Daniels and Brendan Haywood posted a 23-16 record during the regular season last year (including two victories over the eventual champion Boston Celtics), while key reserves like Andray Blatche, Darius Songaila and Nick Young helped the team win 43 games and make the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
Roger Mason Jr. left via free agency for San Antonio but veteran center Etan Thomas is back after missing all of last season following heart surgery. Guards Juan Dixon and Dee Brown are in camp to compete for minutes as backups and second-year players Dominic McGuire and Oleksiy Pecherov will try to earn spots in Jordan's rotation.
The roster is rounded out by rookie center JaVale McGee and camp invitees DerMarr Johnson, Linton Johnson and Taj McCullough.
Between today and the Oct. 29 season opener against the New Jersey Nets, the Wizards have a week of camp and seven preseason contests that will include a weeklong trip to Europe.
Jordan has said he will again place an emphasis on team defense this week and he'll use the preseason to establish a rotation, identify a backup to Butler at small forward and tweak his offense to best exploit the offensive talents of Butler and Jamison, both of whom scored more than 20 points per game last season.
"We're going to go out every night, we're going to play hard, we're going to compete," said Daniels, who started a career-high 63 games last season and will man the point guard position until Arenas returns. "We have a very good, competitive basketball team that has been together for a while and we're going to win some basketball games."
Several veterans mentioned health and the development of younger players like Blatche, Young, McGuire and Pecherov as keys to having success without Arenas.
Blatche, who is entering his fourth season, played in all 82 games last season with 15 starts and posted career highs in scoring, rebounding, shooting percentage and minutes played.
"He's the wild card," Jamison said. "I see no reason why Andray can't average 14 or 15 points this season. We're counting on him."
Players rave about some of the talents Young has displayed during pickup games in recent weeks, and the 6-foot-6, 200-pounder flashed his skills as scorer in sporadic duty last season. But Jordan wants him to improve defensively and become a better passer, cutter and screener.
McGuire, who saw limited action in 70 games as a rookie, had a strong summer league and wants to prove that he can be Butler's backup at small forward. Pecherov is hoping to stay healthy after foot and ankle problems hampered him early last season and limited him to 35 games.
"It's on all of us to raise the level of our games and grow as players but we definitely need those young guys to step up and help us," said Butler. "They have the ability and last year those guys got some experience, so now it's a matter of putting it together and bringing it on a nightly basis."
Wizards notes: Butler, who was limited to 58 games last season because of a string of injuries, said he is healthy and credits yoga lessons taken during the offseason with making him stronger and more flexible.
"Yoga got me through," said Butler, who was given the nickname "Tough Juice" by Jordan two seasons ago. "It got me opening up my hips so I'm looser. Dropping pounds. My body feels great. Tough Juice and yoga. How's that sound?"