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Rebuilt and ready to launch Arenas 2.0

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.

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."

Arenas's former coach, Eddie Jordan, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, said he believes that a team can win a championship with Arenas. "He can be a terrific ingredient for a championship team," Jordan said. "If you build around him, it has to be like Kobe [Bryant]. You got to have another major piece and that can carry a lot of the load, if not most of the load."

Arenas averaged 27.8 points and made three all-star teams from 2004 to '07, but during six seasons in Washington, he either deflected the role of team leader or Jordan never offered the role, depending on whom you ask.

Saunders took over in April, and one of the first things he told Arenas was that as the team's best player, he had to lead. When asked about leadership last month, Arenas responded with a series of questions of his own. "What is a leader? Is a leader a guy who comes to the gym at 7 o'clock when practice is at 11? Or when the game is at 7, you're here at 3:30 and you play hard? Is that a leader? Or is it I say I'm a leader and coach says I'm a leader in the paper, so I'm a leader. Is that a leader? I have no idea."

Just before this season's training camp, Arenas said the false starts and setbacks of the first major injury of his career were like "a roller coaster. Being out two years from something I love, you're going to have ups and downs. You're going to have mood swings. It was points where I gave up. Points where I was happy and I got excited."

Having lost a large chunk of his prime, Arenas became more reflective about his career this summer and decided to seek out Grover after avoiding him for two years. Arenas had seen how former NBA Finals most valuable player Dwyane Wade returned to his all-star form and finished third in MVP voting after training with Grover and wanted to give Grover a chance to do the same for him.

"I think I milked up all of my resources. That was the last one I was dodging," Arenas said. "I just don't believe in traveling and paying someone to work you on what you can do yourself. But all of the free ones wasn't getting the job done, so I had to go over there."

Arenas claims that his knee is stronger than ever, but he admits that it will never be the same. "At the end of the day, when you mess up something, it's never going to be back 100 percent," Arenas said. "I just want to play 82 games. I did once in my career and I'd like to try it again."

'One More Chance'

While he was unable to represent the Wizards and unable to show the dominance that made him a three-time all-star, Arenas felt robbed of his ability to be what defines him.

"He's a basketball player. He's not trying to be anything else," said Orlando Magic General Manager Otis Smith, who worked closely with Arenas when the two were with the Warriors. "When he's not doing that, he can make everybody around him a little uneasy. I'm sure people in the Wizards organization felt that and the people near and dear to him felt that. It's been really tough."

Smith recalled how Arenas released his frustrations while he was an underutilized rookie with Golden State by complaining in Smith's Alameda, Calif., apartment, practicing alone at the gym at unusual hours and even breaking the rules of his contract by playing pickup games wherever he could find them. Without basketball, Arenas had to find other outlets, such as video games, for his competitive fire, Smith said.

On Friday, after the Wizards concluded the preseason in Chicago, Arenas removed oversized headphones and talked to reporters -- one of the few times he's spoken to members of the media recently. The song blaring in the background as Arenas answered questions was "One More Chance" by Notorious B.I.G.

Arenas has at last received another chance to resume his once-promising career. "It's like anything in life, when you get something taken away from you that you love, you want to just do it again," he said.

It is unclear whether he is up to the task of immediate leadership, of striking the balance between being an explosive scorer or efficient floor general, of being an elite player once again. But Arenas is certain that he won't attempt to make up for lost time. "Not anymore," he said. "You can't get back what you've lost. All you can do is keep moving forward. That's what I've learned in the two years."

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