Pushing Beyond Potential
After Four Years of Promise, Blatche Needs to Prove Worth

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., Oct. 13 -- Andray Blatche decided that his fifth season in the NBA was going to be about change. It started with picking a new number. He ditched No. 32, and buried all of the underachievement that had become associated with it, in exchange for No. 7, which Blatche said carried a dual meaning for "seven days of hard work" and "the Lord's number," representing completion.

Blatche also got braces in the offseason, creating an even more youthful appearance for the 23-year-old backup big man who is perpetually tabbed for a breakout season.

"Everything is new," Blatche said. "Everything is going to be fresh."

Blatche understands that this declaration of change will be greeted with more skepticism than support, especially because he has made similar pledges in the past. But Blatche has moved beyond a desire to break out and has settled on just trying to be consistent. A 6-foot-11 forward with the skill set to play three positions, Blatche has confounded his teammates, coaches and fans with performances that oscillated wildly from brilliance to disappearance, an inability to sustain his focus beyond short stretches and an indifference to proper conditioning.

The motivation for Blatche to change wasn't just that he wanted a clean slate with the Washington Wizards' third coach in the past year, Flip Saunders. He said it was mostly a long, weighty conversation that he had last season with his mother, Angela Oliver.

"She said, 'You're too lackadaisical, like you're just out there goofing around with your friends,' " Blatche said. "After a while I was like, 'You're right: This is my job, this is my team, I need to go ahead and step my game up and be more focused.' "

Blatche averaged 10 points and 5.3 rebounds last season, but the Wizards will rely more on him now with the team shedding veteran big men Etan Thomas and Darius Songaila in its offseason trade with Minnesota. Blatche said he has taken it as a personal challenge to earn a spot in Saunders's regular rotation through his effort on the floor, not by default.

Through the first four preseason games, Blatche has one double-double and has averaged 11.3 points and 7.5 rebounds. He also has had defensive lapses, reacting late or being overly aggressive and picking up "ticky-tack" fouls. He has 14 fouls.

Blatche might appear to be a bit tardy in making his declaration to finally get serious about his career, but for Antawn Jamison, one of Blatche's most vocal critics, it's better now than never.

"He's put a smile on my face," Jamison said. "That's what we need out of [Blatche]. If we can have him playing at a very high level, it makes us even more dangerous. I want him to achieve the best out of his talents. I thought in the past, he could've did more. But just seeing his approach and the way he's been playing and how seriously he's been playing, that's a good sign. He can make this season really good with his play."

It would be difficult to call Blatche's career to this point a disappointment, given the relatively high production for his draft position. Taken out of South Kent Prep (Conn.) with the 49th pick in 2005, Blatche has arguably had a better career than more than half of the players taken ahead of him, with career averages of 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Since the NBA draft was limited to just two rounds in 1989, Blatche is one of just five No. 49 picks to make at least 55 career starts and score more than 1,500 points. Eight No. 49s drafted in the past 20 years never played in the NBA.

But Blatche's inability to take full advantage of his physical gifts have made him a target of derision. He's agile, relatively quick, a decent rebounder and can score in a variety of ways, but has yet to channel his talents beyond the occasional tease. He also has had his share of off-court distractions -- getting shot after leaving a nightclub before his rookie season and arrested for soliciting an undercover officer in August 2007 -- and displayed an affinity for the nightlife.

Blatche often shriveled under former coach Eddie Jordan's criticism for being out of shape and his hard-line demands for professionalism. But Saunders has taken a different approach to motivate Blatche, using in-game teaching exercises to yield more continuous effort. Before the Wizards' first preseason game against Memphis, Saunders noticed how Blatche had grown frustrated in a practice scrimmage because his shots weren't falling. He told Blatche that great players block out past mistakes and focus on making the next play.

Through the first three quarters against the Grizzlies, Blatche struggled to overcome his jitters, as he missed his first four shots. But in the fourth period, Blatche scored 11 points with seven rebounds and two blocked shots to help the Wizards pull out the win. After the game, Saunders called Blatche during his drive home to congratulate him and remind him of what they had talked about earlier in the week. "This is my first time having a relationship with a coach like this. I like it," Blatche said. "It's cool for me, gives me a little confidence and makes me want to be a better player, stay focused, continue to work hard. He lets me know that hard work pays off. He continues to give me confidence, always boosting me up."

Saunders started building the relationship almost immediately after he was hired in April. When he spotted Blatche in the gym the first time, Saunders immediately put him through an individual workout. While pushing Blatche physically, he also told Blatche that he had faith in him and that the Wizards were going to need him. "If you want to be the best," Saunders told him, "now is the time to start."

"He's been receptive to everything, no matter what we've talked about," Saunders said of Blatche. "I've talked to him about consistency, intensity and not getting down on yourself. I've talked to him a lot about respecting the game and other players who have played. I've also talked to him about creating his own identity."

For a while, Blatche found his identity in his headband -- "my thing," he said -- even though he usually pitched it aside after each of his sluggish starts. Blatche abandoned the headband last Sunday in Toronto, where he played the entire game without any material on his head. But afterward, Blatche said the headband is not going anywhere. "It was a one-time thing," he said. "I didn't like the way it felt without it. I got to keep my headband." Some things won't change.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company