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Rebuilt and ready to launch ARENAS 2.0

After wowing fans with scoring barrages, buzzer-beaters, imaginative nicknames and an entertaining blog, Gilbert Arenas has been sidelined by a knee injury for most of the past two seasons. In the meantime, he also agreed to a six-year, $111 million contract to stay in Washington in the summer of 2008. What's next for the mercurial star as he attempts to make a healthy return?

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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 25, 2009

From the time he entered the NBA as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors, Gilbert Arenas has been equally ambitious and impatient. Even as an unheralded second-round pick, Arenas couldn't accept that he wasn't starting, let alone not playing, his rookie season.

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Now, after missing nearly two full seasons because of a recurring left knee injury that tested his patience and drive, Arenas is healthy. And again he's in a rush -- to regain his spot among the league's elite players, to hush those who lambasted his $111 million contract and to help the Washington Wizards return to the Eastern Conference's upper echelon, a perch they last reached when Arenas was confidently making game-winning shots and producing 50-point barrages.

Arenas, though, has returned to a situation that is unlike previous years in Washington. New Coach Flip Saunders has assigned him the title of team captain and given him the responsibility of running a new offense that places the ball in his hands the majority of the time he's on the floor. And there's also the matter of cleaning off the rust that comes from being inactive for all but 15 games since he collapsed following a collision with Gerald Wallace in April 2007.

Handling all of that should understandably take some time -- but try telling that to Arenas.

"He wants it all right now," Saunders said. "I talk to him so much about how this whole thing is a process and you don't get to where you were by just jumping over three hurdles. You've got to take each hurdle, one at a time."

The first hurdle involved Arenas completing a grueling summer knee rehabilitation program with renowned trainer Tim Grover. The second hurdle was Arenas making it through the preseason without any complications and showing that he is no longer limited, mentally or physically, by that troublesome left knee.

Now comes the next hurdle, the one Arenas, the Wizards and their fans have been waiting for: Surviving a full season and yielding some return on the enormous deal he signed in the summer of 2008.

Arenas and Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld were roundly criticized for the contract, especially after Arenas underwent his third knee procedure less than three months after signing the deal and was limited to just two games last season during the team's miserable 19-63 campaign. "You don't play and you just got a contract, then you expect the talk," Arenas said last week.

Grunfeld said several teams, including Golden State, were interested in paying Arenas handsomely two summers ago, and is steadfast that he would do the same deal if he had to do it again. "Absolutely. You don't buy talent like Gilbert's every day," said Grunfeld, who lured Arenas to Washington from Golden State with a six-year, $65 million contract in August 2003. "His production has been outstanding. People are upset that he was hurt, like it was his doing."

Questions of leadership

Even at full strength, questions remain about how far Arenas can take the Wizards. He was healthy for only two of the Wizards' past four playoff appearances and has led them out of the first round just once, in 2004-05, when he was only 23.

One executive from a rival Eastern Conference team said Arenas needs to either emerge as a great leader or a great follower for the Wizards to get the proper return on their investment. Arenas has five years and $95 million remaining on his deal.

"The worst thing that can happen is that he's neither," said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to make public comments on behalf of his organization. "He's a hell of a player, as good as they come in the league, but I don't know if Gilbert is capable of taking the foolishness out of his lifestyle in order to be a leader. I also don't know if he's able to take the ego and pride out of his game to be a follower. [Leadership] has been a fundamental issue with the Wizards and it will continue to be until it is solved in one way or another, whether it's through the head coach, the players or the management."


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