By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Practice had just finished on Monday, but Dee Brown, Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Oleksiy Pecherov and JaVale McGee remained on the court going over plays under the watchful eyes of Coach Eddie Jordan and his assistants.
The five players worked on spacing, cutting and setting screens with no defense on the floor to oppose them. But the time will come, perhaps as soon as tonight when the Wizards open the regular season against the New Jersey Nets at Verizon Center, when the team's young players will be counted on to perform in critical situations against real, live NBA opponents.
With three-time all-star Gilbert Arenas expected to miss at least the first month with a left knee injury and starting center Brendan Haywood expected to be out four to six months following right wrist surgery, the season could depend on how quickly those five players plus fourth-year forward-center Andray Blatche elevate their play.
"The waiting game is over," two-time all-star forward Caron Butler said. "With the injuries we have, we are going to need those guys to help us. It's not a matter of whether they are ready or not, because they have to be ready. We need them."
No one knows what to expect because the seven-game preseason seemed to raise as many questions as it answered.
The Wizards finished 2-5, were blown out three times and often struggled when the team's starters and veterans were not on the floor.
For that reason, Jordan said he would rely on a "veteran rotation" tonight -- one that will likely include forward Darius Songaila and guard Juan Dixon off the bench -- and evaluate his young players on a day-to-day basis.
Solid efforts in practice, day-of-game shoot-arounds and games will be rewarded with playing time. A lack of effort, failure to pay attention to detail and poor performance will result in long stretches on the bench.
"It's consistency," Jordan said. "Not just a flash here and a flash there, I want them to run the floor every time, I want them to think about defense and I want them to look to help their teammates with good passing and not just be a flash. Pretty much, that's what we've seen."
The Wizards particularly need breakout efforts from Young and Blatche.
Without Arenas and his career average of 22.8 points per game, the 6-foot-7 Young is one of the team's best hopes for generating consistent offense off the bench.
Young had a decent rookie season when he averaged 7.5 points on 43.9 percent shooting and he periodically flashed all-star talent, but he also struggled to learn Jordan's offense and remains a work in progress defensively.
"Coach sat me down and talked about being more consistent," Young said. "He told me and Andray that he doesn't want to see us score 16 one night and two the next. That is what we have to show him."
Blatche, who is entering his fourth season, remains an even larger question mark. At 6-11, 260 pounds with a rare combination of length, quickness and skill, Blatche has the tools to be a top-flight NBA player, but his work habits, effort and off-the-court decision-making have held him back.
The loss of Haywood, who posted career-highs in several statistical categories last season while anchoring an improved defense, puts particular pressure on Blatche and 7-foot rookie McGee to be factors in the post. Veteran Etan Thomas, who missed all of last season following open-heart surgery, will start tonight.
"Blatche is crucial for them because he can play multiple spots and he can really boost that bench," said an Eastern Conference scout familiar with the Wizards. "He has all the talent in the world, but he doesn't always play hard. There are nights when he flat-out doesn't come to play. Guys like that either have a light bulb pop on and they take off or they tease you their entire career."
Blatche is aware of such criticism -- he's heard similar messages from his own coaches and teammates -- and he has vowed to take a more professional approach.
"I know I have to be more consistent," said Blatche, who played all 82 games last season while posting career highs in scoring (7.5 per game), rebounding (5.2 per game) and shooting percentage (47.4 percent). "That's the main thing I know I have to do: work harder in practice and bring it every night. That's my goal this season. I want to help this team win games."
Veteran guard Antonio Daniels likes what he's seen of Blatche lately.
"He's here early every day, lifting and working on his body and trying to get himself together," Daniels said. "So, for me, as long as I see that effort there with Andray, especially as talented as he is, everything else will take care of itself."
The team's veterans are doing what they can to bring the young players along. Consummate professional Antawn Jamison recently challenged Blatche to consistently practice and play harder. Songaila often dispenses advice to fellow Russian-speaker Pecherov, McGuire squares off against Butler each day in practice, Young is often on the receiving end of ribbing and advice from Arenas, and McGee has become something of a team-wide project.
Following Monday's practice for example, Arenas, assistant coach Phil Hubbard and volunteer coach Tony Massenburg worked with McGee on post moves and other offensive techniques until the 20-year-old was bent over, gasping for air.
"He's so long, he doesn't even realize it," Arenas said of McGee, who has a 7-6 wing span. "I just want to see him get to the point where he really uses that length to his advantage because if he does, there isn't a player in the league who is going to block his shot."
The veterans similarly see the talent Young displays in practice and have let him know that they expect to see the same in games.
"Oh, they're always on us," Young said. "Day and night, they be on us. After practice, they come up to me: 'What did you do today? I didn't see you do what you normally do.' I don't want to hear that so I have to go out there every day and give it my all. But we've been doing our thing. The white team [reserves] has been winning in practice so, we know we have something to prove as young guys. We want to show the vets that we belong and they can trust us."