Andray Blatche and Greivis Vasquez have rehabilitated their images with stretches of incredible basketball
It's difficult to imagine two basketball players changing perceptions about who they are as quickly and as dramatically as the Wizards' Andray Blatche and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez are now.
Only two weeks ago Blatche was seen, even by some of the people managing him and playing with him, as a straight-up knucklehead, a fifth-year player who couldn't be bothered with the weight room, was difficult to coach and might be beyond salvaging here in Washington.
Vasquez, when the ACC season began in earnest eight weeks ago, was seen as talented but unreliable, a huge asset to the Terrapins some nights, a total liability others. He could, his critics said, win a game or lose one almost by himself, and Maryland couldn't be a real postseason threat if Vasquez was the team's best player.
How thoroughly things have flipped. Blatche, virtually overnight, has turned into Kevin Garnett, averaging 26.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game since Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood were traded, opening up minutes, shots, rebounds and a massive opportunity to jump-start his career. Vasquez, second in scoring and first in assists in the ACC, ought to be the favorite to win the league's player-of-the-year award. And more important, he leads Maryland into Wednesday night's game against Duke with a share of first place on the line.
Let me go no further before disclosing I was skeptical of Vasquez and totally dismissive of Blatche. I was never as down on Vasquez as a lot of folks, scouts included, because he was clearly a work in progress, a kid who thought enough of growing and learning that he passed on turning pro last summer to return to Maryland for his senior year. A college kid who thinks something through that thoroughly can't be a know-it-all, even though some thought he acted like one.
Thing is, it's one thing to improve; it's another thing entirely to excel in so many different areas of the game in the ACC. Vasquez is the first ACC player ever to record 2,000 points, 700 assists and 600 rebounds in his career, and he could have double-digit games remaining in his senior season. "Ever" in the ACC is a long, long time (not like Conference USA or even the Big East) and covers some of the greatest players in the history of college basketball. I know that numbers often don't measure impact, but they do say something about a player's ability and consistency.
Last week in an online chat someone asked if Vasquez could finish his career as one of the five best players in Maryland history and I quickly said 'no way.' Maryland, from Tom McMillen and Len Elmore to Buck Williams and Len Bias to Joe Smith, Walt Williams and Juan Dixon, has had a lot of great players. I'm not sure I even had Vasquez in Maryland's top 20.
But . . . it's not often college players throw up a triple-double, which Vasquez did Feb. 21 (35 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists), becoming only the third Maryland player to do so. It's not often a college player puts up 25 points in a half, which he did against Virginia. And it's not often a college player goes on the road in a conference game and puts up 41, as he did at Virginia Tech the other night in a double-OT victory. If Vasquez has a big March, I'm reserving the right to change my mind about him being one of Maryland's top five to 10 players ever.
We see college players blossom all the time, those who still feel they can learn something between high school and NBA stardom. What's more rare is an NBA player breaking out five years into his career after such a disappointing history, which brings me back to Blatche. Remember, the Wizards suspended Blatche on Jan. 11 for being a knucklehead, for not doing what was asked of him in games or between them.
One of my favorite lines about Blatche came from a teammate, who told me this summer, "This kid has been in the league [four] years and all he's done is get older." Blatche, another teammate told me, couldn't find the weight room with a GPS. He was a more skilled version of Kwame Brown. And Blatche, like Brown, didn't get it. He thought management was picking on him, that he was misunderstood and not appreciated.
To the undying credit of the coaching staffs, going back to Eddie Jordan and Ed Tapscott, the men paid to coach Blatche worked with him despite their frustration. Sam Cassel, who surely has a future as a head coach some day, taught Blatche a couple of Hakeem Olajuwon's up-and-under moves, which Blatche could pick up quickly because he does have good hands, quick feet and an instinctive feel for the game. When the Wizards unloaded Haywood, Butler and Jamison in trades, Coach Flip Saunders himself took Blatche and JaVale McGee onto the practice court and put the kiddies through one-on-one post drills.
When the dust cleared from the trades, Blatche looked over his shoulder and didn't see Butler, Jamison or Butler. Blatche is now the senior member of the Wizards. No more excuses about no playing time being available, no shots or rebounds being available. And I'll say this for the kid: He's made not just the most of it; he's in the process of changing his career because of it.
Yes, it's only seven games and we need to see a lot bigger sample size after four years of underachieving. But we also have to look at what Blatche can do over a stretch of games. The Wizards coaches and executives very quietly hoped he would jump from a nine points and five rebounds per game kind of player to, say, 16 and 7 or 17 and 8.
But look at what he's done in points and rebounds since the trade: 33 and 13 (vs. Minnesota), 18-11 (vs. playoff-bound Denver), 24-6 (against playoff-bound Toronto), 25-11 (vs. playoff-bound Chicago), 24-8 (against a terrific Memphis frontcourt), 26-18 (vs. New York) and 36-15 (vs. New Jersey).
With the chance to play, Blatche is finally doing what the team has asked him to do for awhile. Word is he's in the weight room regularly, is practicing harder, trying on the defensive end. In the victory over the Nets the other night, Blatche became the first Washington player to have 15 baskets and 15 rebounds in a game since Tom Gugliotta did it for the Bullets in November of 1992. In that same game he became the first player this season to post numbers of at least 36 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocked shots in one game. Nobody had done it in a Bullets/Wizards uniform since Elvin Hayes 35 years ago.
The pouting is over because Blatche doesn't have to worry that Wizards management, including the team's trainers, only worries about the star players. Hell, he is the star player. Yes, it's preposterous that Blatche thought that in the first place, but this is what talented kids, especially those who jump straight to the NBA from high school, think about when they don't immediately get all the minutes and shots they want.
Simply, Blatche didn't know how to be a professional basketball player, which is to be blamed largely on the NBA for ever having allowed kids to make the jump in the first place.
But all that seems so unnecessary to talk about now. With making the playoffs not an option and the team starting over from scratch, it's intriguing to follow a 23-year-old who is 6-foot-11 with this skill set. It's like finding a free agent in your own locker room. One player who can fill up a stat sheet makes an inordinate difference in basketball. Whatever we thought of Blatche, and of Vasquez for that matter, it's not just fair to reassess, it's mandatory.