By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
RICHMOND, Oct. 6 -- He sat in his corner locker room stall, headphones blaring the sounds of Jay-Z and Notorious B.I.G., as he got himself prepared for his first preseason game in almost two years. As much as Washington Wizards fans have waited for Gilbert Arenas to return to the basketball court, the delay from the game he loves has been much more arduous and painful for Arenas.
From a very brief flirtation with retirement this January, to pushing himself in the weight room for countless hours this summer with renowned trainer Tim Grover, Arenas has worked diligently to get back to play again on his surgically repaired left knee. Having already retired his Agent Zero and Hibachi personas last week, the three-time all-star hit the court against the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday, simply to resume the career of Gilbert Arenas, the facilitator.
Arenas had five points and 10 assists in 24 minutes in the Wizards' 101-92 victory and looked remarkably agile after three surgeries on his left knee limited him to just 15 regular season games the past two seasons. Before the opening tip, Arenas rocketed toward the rim and hung for several seconds. Later he erased concerns about his health when he intercepted a pass from Memphis guard O.J. Mayo then hurdled a scorers' table to save the ball, much to the delight of the sellout crowd -- and Wizards Coach Flip Saunders -- at Virginia Commonwealth University's Verizon Wireless Arena.
"No one should question how his knee is, jumping over the table like that," Saunders said. "As I said, he's given me no indication in the things that he's done that he's not back, that he's not the Gil of old."
While Arenas, who left Tuesday without speaking to reporters, began what he calls "the next chapter" of his career, the Wizards also started a new regime under Saunders, unveiled newcomers Mike Miller, Randy Foye and Fabricio Oberto, and welcomed back DeShawn Stevenson and Brendan Haywood from injuries that curtailed their 2008-09 seasons. Before the game, Saunders joked, "I hope they aren't going to judge me on the preseason games."
One exhibition is certainly not enough to judge Arenas's comeback, but it was an important first step for him and the franchise that awarded him a $111 million contract in the summer of 2008. "He has the ability to take you to that upper echelon," Saunders said. "The last time he played, I thought he was one of the guys that was one of the two or three guys mentioned for MVP. When you're talking about a guy who was at one point, you're thinking he could be MVP of the league, I think you're aware of what he can do."
Arenas assisted on the Wizards' first seven field goals, and appeared in complete command of Saunders's offense as he directed traffic and put his teammates in the right spots on the floor. Arenas was able to get the basket at his pleasure, but didn't have the scorers' mentality that led him to average 27.8 points from 2004 to '07.
He missed four of the five shots he attempted and even bypassed an uncontested layup to feed Caron Butler. Butler missed the easy layup and Arenas joked with Butler that he cost him an assist.
Saunders said that he planned on using Arenas for just "eight to 10 minutes," but Arenas played 11 minutes in the first quarter. When he grabbed a seat next to assistant coach Sam Cassell, the Wizards held a 29-24 lead. Arenas got the Wizards going quickly as he caught the ball in the low post and kicked the ball out to Antawn Jamison for a three-pointer. He then found Nick Young in the corner for a 19-foot jumper, Butler up high for a 17-footer and Jamison for another three-pointer. His best assist came when he zipped a no-look pass to a cutting Jamison for a one-handed dunk.
Jamison said having Arenas back provides him much easier looks. "It was unbelievable, having a guy like him," Jamison said after scoring a game-high 20 points with eight rebounds. "On one, I was so wide open I didn't know what to do."
Arenas applied some oil on his knee while he sat in the second period, then returned with about five minutes left. Arenas wasn't nearly as effective, as he missed his only field goal attempt and four free throws, but he did have one blocked shot. Arenas also experienced some pain when Grizzlies backup Mike Taylor accidentally hit him in the groin. Later in the third period, Arenas took a charge as Zach Randolph plowed through him.
Arenas had received rave reviews from teammates, coaches and players around the league as he rehabbed this summer, but it may take some time before he regains his explosive scoring touch. Arenas the playmaker was on display all night, but he struggled with his shot. He missed his only jump shot at the front of the rim, a few layups and six of his nine free throw attempts. Arenas also was caught sleeping a few times on defense, leaving Mike Conley open for two three-pointers and Taylor open for another. Conley led the Grizzlies with 12 points.
Butler had 15 points. Young started at shooting guard and finished with 11 points and four rebounds. Haywood had six points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots. Randy Foye had 14 points, and Andray Blatche had 13 points and eight rebounds.
"I thought he was good. He needs to get hit and do the things that he needs to do in this type of situation. He's got a 20 [point]-10 [assist] game with the missed free throws and some of the layups," Saunders said of Arenas. "But he felt good, that's why he played the  minutes. At one point, he said, why don't you play me the way you'll play me in the regular season. I said, 'We're not ready for that.' "