By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 16, 2009
LAS VEGAS, July 15 -- Andray Blatche came out for his NBA summer league debut Tuesday evening with the number 7 on his back, instead of the customary No. 32 jersey he wore during his first four NBA seasons. The switch is permanent, and it has a meaning -- and not just for the handful of fans who now own replica anachronisms.
"We've got a new coaching staff, we changed a lot, so it's time for me to change my whole style, my whole mentality," Blatche said Wednesday afternoon. "I'm wearing 7, and that means seven days [a week] of hard work, seven days of being focused. I'm all about business, and I've got a big opportunity I'm gonna take advantage of."
That opportunity came in several parts. The Wizards changed coaches this spring, and Blatche said he relishes the fresh start and words of confidence offered by Flip Saunders. The team also traded big men Darius Songaila and Etan Thomas to the Minnesota Timberwolves for two perimeter players in Randy Foye and Mike Miller, and while the Wizards are likely to add a veteran front-court player before training camp begins, the 6-foot-11 Blatche could be in line for an increased role. He has been working regularly with Saunders since the coach was hired, and decided to come to Las Vegas to continue that work.
"I think it shows a little bit that he has a newfound commitment as far as what he's trying to accomplish," Saunders said. "He's had a very, very good spring and summer. . . . I told him, the one thing that's preventing him from being a great player is just making sure he gets in phenomenal shape."
Blatche said his unexpected appearance here -- he is one of about a dozen players with four or more years of NBA experience -- should help him once training camp starts this fall, but it also indicates his comfort level with the new regime. Saunders and veteran Gilbert Arenas suggested that a trip to Vegas could help Blatche continue his conditioning work and learn the new offense, and the 22-year-old agreed. After some erratic moments early in Tuesday night's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Blatche finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, helping seal the 96-93 win with a three-point play and two free throws in the final minutes.
Wizards assistant Randy Wittman, who was coaching the team Tuesday night, said that Blatche "facilitated our offense," and despite Blatche's seven turnovers, Wittman didn't hesitate to give him the ball in a variety of spots on the floor.
"Just this whole organization, the vibe I'm getting, it's more confidence for us young players," said Blatche, who came to the NBA straight from high school and is younger than most of his less experienced summer league teammates. "We have great coaches that are always boosting us up. Each one of the players has a personal relationship with Flip. You know, he texts us, he gives us words of wisdom, he stays in your ear, he just gives you that little push you need, and I feel that's key for us winning this season. . . .
"I just feel I belong here now," he continued. "This is my first time having a real good relationship with a coach in the NBA, that he actually takes out the time and texts me and just checks on me. It gives me a lot of confidence. Eddie [Jordan] was a veteran coach, he was tough on young players, so I didn't really have a real strong relationship with Eddie."
Blatche said he has worked with Saunders on his post-up defense, on blocking shots and on scoring in the paint, in addition to attempting to improve his conditioning. The forward set career highs in just about every statistical category a year ago, and while he said he had a good relationship with interim coach Ed Tapscott, Blatche also said he expects the biggest opportunity of his career to arrive this fall. Saunders said maturity and commitment could help Blatche reverse his frustrating habit of dominating one game and disappearing in the next, though it will take more than a few summer league double-doubles to prove that point.
"Same thing that we've been needing from the last couple years, just to be consistent," Wizards captain Antawn Jamison said, when asked what the team needed from Blatche. "We know what he can do. We know he's talented. We just need him to bring it night in and night out, rebound, be a post threat, offensively, defensively, just going in every direction. We just need him to be consistent with it."
Wizards Notes: Saunders said that the team will switch up its Summer League head coaches through the week. Wittman coached Wednesday night's 77-70 loss to the Denver Nuggets, assistant Don Zierden will take over on Friday and Saturday, and Sam Cassell will be in charge Sunday afternoon against the Knicks.. . . .
Washington shot just 32 percent against the Nuggets after shooting 55 percent in Tuesday's win. Young had 17 points against Denver, and Blatche finished with a double-double (27 points and 15 rebounds, both game highs).