By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 17, 2010; 11:38 AM
Hilton Armstrong was in the place he wants to be - on the court, being loose and carefree. He slid over to the foul line, made a jumper and immediately started shouting instructions to his Washington Wizards teammates as he backpedaled on defense in practice on Saturday. He leapt into the lane to catch a lob from Al Thornton, made a difficult shot off the glass in one motion. And, he later tried to chase down a loose ball and hurdled a row of chairs in front of him.
Through an undistinguished first four seasons in the NBA, Armstrong always grappled with thinking too much and worrying about what he could do wrong instead of accomplishing something on the floor.
The 6-foot-11 2006 lottery pick was blessed with athleticism and talent, but no matter what encouraging words he heard from Byron Scott, his former coach in New Orleans, or his father, Hilton Sr., Armstrong could never get over his own lack of confidence. But Armstrong said he is starting to feel that wall coming down in Washington- a place close to his native New York, that his fiancee and daughter have already come to enjoy, and where the Wizards provided him with "a new beginning."
"Here, everyday, Coach [Flip Saunders] would tell me, 'Don't worry about anything, just play. We have confidence in you,' " Armstrong said after practice, as the Wizards prepared to face the New York Knicks on Sunday. "I'm very grateful that I'm here in this situation with these coaches and this front office. I'm very appreciative."
Saunders praised Armstrong during training camp at George Mason - the same school that cut short his career at Connecticut in the Elite Eight in 2006 - claiming that he had outplayed expected starting center JaVale McGee.
Armstrong has been limited some, and missed two preseason games, after developing a bizarre right shoulder injury that he still cannot explain. He just knows that he woke up one morning with some soreness and swelling that may have been caused by sleeping the wrong way or absorbing a hit in a game or practice that had a delayed impact. "I'm not really sure," how it happened, Armstrong said.
As for his battles with confidence, Armstrong said those began in college, where he struggled under a demanding, hard-nosed coach in Jim Calhoun, who gave him little room for error. "Coach Calhoun, he's a great coach. He knows how to win, get players to the NBA. But for me, personally, talent-wise, he didn't work with me," he said. "My confidence was broke. It's not even a secret. Any time I'd mess up on the court, I'd come straight out. That really messed up my mind a little bit."
Armstrong played sparingly his first three years at Connecticut, then had a breakout season as a senior, when he says he started seriously considering playing in the NBA. He admits to being overwhelmed when he heard that he could go in the lottery and was invited to attend the NBA draft at Madison Square Garden.
"At the time, I didn't even know what the green room was. I thought the room was really green. I had no clue," Armstrong, whom New Orleans drafted 12th overall, said with a laugh. "I just didn't know how I ended up in this position."
Armstrong developed a much better off-the-court relationship with Scott than he did with Calhoun, but Scott had little patience. New Orleans eventually gave up on Armstrong, sending him to Sacramento for a conditional second-round pick. He lasted about a month with the Kings before he was dealt to Houston, which cut him the last week of the regular season. He signed a one-year deal worth the league minimum with Washington in July after posting career averages of 3.4 points and 2.6 rebounds.
"Hilton is a guy with a lot of talent, but very unsure of himself. That's one of his biggest problems," said Scott, now coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I tried the best I could to install that in him. He told me, when I made a mistake in college, they took me out. I said, 'Well you're not in college. I'm not going to take you out. Keep playing.' Sometimes, it's hard for some guys to break out of that habit."
"Hilton and I had a great relationship, talked a lot," Scott said. "I'm hoping this second chance for him goes well."
Armstrong said he takes full responsibility for his shortcomings thus far and would not dispute Scott's claims. "I've been hearing that for so long. I know that's a huge thing that's holding me back," he said. "I'm slowly getting out of that. I can feel myself improving with that confidence part."
Saunders hasn't been complaining about what Armstrong brings to the floor, with his work ethic and knowledge of the game. "Hilton has been solid," he said. "He graded better than any of our bigs, as far as being in position, help defense, sets some of the better screens, gets guys open. He's not going to make mistakes. He's more athletic than you think, because he's so big. He had a little bit of setback [with the shoulder], but he's come out of camp and done pretty well."
Armstrong said he is thrilled to be with a team that has confidence in him. "I love it. As soon as I got here, everybody welcomed me; laughs and jokes the first couple days," he said. "I felt real comfortable, and as the year goes on, I know it's going to get better and better. I just have to take as much advantage of it as possible."