Reserve Earl Boykins is leading the Washington Wizards' turnaround

Earl Boykins, center, stands out among former all-stars Gilbert Arenas, left, and Antawn Jamison.
Earl Boykins, center, stands out among former all-stars Gilbert Arenas, left, and Antawn Jamison. (Alex Brandon/associated Press)
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By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 4, 2009

When the Washington Wizards signed Earl Boykins three weeks ago, they were depleted at the point guard position and simply needed to fill a hole. But after the team got off to a ragged start this season, Boykins is actually helping to make the team whole.

The Wizards are 5-4 since Boykins joined the team on a non-guaranteed contract on Nov. 11. And, as they prepare to face the Toronto Raptors on Friday at Verizon Center, the Wizards (7-10) have won four of their past five games and appear to be turning a corner with the 5-foot-5 Boykins running the show in the fourth quarter in three of those victories. His most triumphant performance came during their 104-102 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, when Boykins scored 11 points in the final 10 minutes, including the game-winning free throws with one second remaining.

To many observers -- including the fans who chanted "MVP! MVP!" when he stepped to the foul line late against the Bucks -- it may have seemed surprising to have the diminutive Boykins making nearly every play and taking nearly every shot while sharing the floor with three former all-stars in Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. But that wasn't the case with his teammates, who have grown accustomed to Boykins bailing them out.

"For us to be a good team, you have to be selfless and you have to realize down the stretch of the game, Earl was the guy making it happen. You don't go away from what helped you get there," center Brendan Haywood said. "Earl was what helped us get and sustain the lead in the fourth quarter. We understand that. We have good guys in this locker room. No one was mad in the huddle. They knew Earl played well down the stretch. Earl was going to bring it home for us and he did."

In just nine games, Boykins has already established himself as the team's closer, as he guided the team to victories against Cleveland, Miami, Toronto and Milwaukee. He is averaging 10 points and 4.1 assists this season, but his production has come mostly in the final period, when he is the Wizards' leading scorer, averaging 6.8 points per game. Boykins is third in the league in fourth-quarter scoring behind Miami's Dwyane Wade (6.9) and Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings (7.1).

"Earl has always been a fourth-quarter player, a great free throw shooter and has an uncanny ability to make shots," said Coach Flip Saunders, a native of the Cleveland area, like Boykins. "He's probably one of the most unique players to ever play at this level and do what he does -- to be able to score and basically at times, almost dominate the game. I've got a lot of confidence in him. He's a phenomenal player."

The laid-back and soft-spoken Boykins said the reason he performs under fourth-quarter pressure is because of his inner calm, which may explain how he sank his last four free throws in the final 17.4 seconds.

"It just has to do with being patient. A lot of guys at the end of games, guys rush. If you're able to be patient, you're able to get things done," Boykins said. "I never worry. That's just my personality. I guess I'm not an anxious person."

Boykins has had his patience tested throughout his career, as he bounced around eight NBA teams in his first 10 seasons, then played in Italy last season. The longest stint he had with any team was a 3 1/2 -year run with the Denver Nuggets, but Boykins said he isn't bothered that most teams have had only a short-term infatuation with him. "Upset me? Why? I make a good living," Boykins said. "It could be much worse. . . . There are much worse things I could do. Who am I to complain?

"Honestly, in this league, sometimes you can't control where you play," he said. "All I can control is what I do when I'm out on the court and everywhere I went, I've been successful. Whether teams move me, it doesn't matter, I'm still playing basketball for a living."

The move to Italy actually turned out to be somewhat of a blessing, because Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld went to that country last season to scout Jennings and watched Boykins torch Jennings's team. And, when guard Randy Foye sprained his right ankle in Miami, the team immediately reached out to Boykins, who was working out in Denver, preparing for a return to the NBA.

Jamison, who played with Boykins for one season in Golden State, said he's watched Boykins play for too long to be startled by Boykins's ability to produce. "I think it amazes more of the fans than anything. 'Here's a guy my size out there with rest of those giants and he's making it look easy,' " Jamison said. "The only thing that amazes me is, this guy was at home relaxing and then all of a sudden, he was on a team acting like he hasn't missed time at all. Luckily, he landed in our laps and we're going to ride him until we can't ride no more."

Boykins has been counted out and slighted throughout his career, but said that he isn't really motivated to simply silence his doubters. "I just want to be, I guess, you could say, the best. That's what drives me when I'm out on the court," he said. "After 10 years, you still have to prove yourself in this league. I'm used to it, but I also take it as a challenge."

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