Andray Blatche finally rounding back into shape for Washington Wizards

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 12:35 AM

Andray Blatche was scoring at will on his Washington Wizards teammates during a one-on-one drill this week in practice. He shook JaVale McGee with an up-and-under-move, darted around Hilton Armstrong and used a nifty behind-the-back dribble to pass Yi Jianlian.

Matched up again with McGee, Blatche tried to make a finger roll but McGee snatched the ball with his right hand and cupped it by his hip before landing. The sequence served as an example of Blatche's ability to score in a variety of ways on the low block, but also showed why he has been slightly reluctant to stay there through the first three games of the season.

"He does not have the same explosiveness that he had last year," Coach Flip Saunders said of Blatche, who is working himself back from breaking his foot last June. "As he continues to get in shape that explosiveness will come."

Since returning a few days into training camp, Blatche has been trying to get his conditioning back to where it was before the injury. He is taking extra sprints after practice, showing up at 10 p.m. to shoot and said he recently decided to remove red meat from his diet. But getting in shape remains a challenge.

Blatche admits that he often has a hard time sleeping at night and rarely closes his eyes before 1:30 a.m. If he's in bed before then, he'll click the remote and watch some television until he dozes off. But staying up late usually leads to cravings for snacks.

"I eat late, that's how I gain weight," Blatche said.

He once could cover for those poor eating habits through extra training, but they became a problem when the foot injury made him more sedentary. It also made his recovery more difficult.

"I hadn't been on the court for four months, so that's tough," said Blatche, who is averaging 15.7 points and 5.7 rebounds this season. "Without basketball, I lost some of my rhythm. I'm trying to gain it back. I'm just taking it a game at a time. Once I get it, I'm going to get back to the type of player I know I can be."

Blatche offered a glimpse of that near the end of last season, when he averaged 22.1 points and 8.3 rebounds over the final 32 games, and earned a three-year extension worth $28 million. But he said he is not seeking to duplicate that production this season now that he is surrounded by more talent, including No. 1 overall pick John Wall and summer acquisition Kirk Hinrich. Gilbert Arenas and Josh Howard will also eventually return from injuries, with Arenas listed as a game-time decision for the Wizards' game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Friday night.

Blatche has had to make some adjustments this season, as he regains his form and finds a comfortable role, but said he isn't motivated by detractors who referred to his late-season run as a fluke that came as a result of limited options for the Wizards.

"My thing is this: I'm not here to prove anybody wrong. How they feel about my game, that's how they feel. I'm worried about my team," Blatche said. "If people get mad at me that I'm not getting 20 and 10 every night and we're winning, I don't care. If we're losing, then that's going to be problem. If people get mad that I'm not doing what I did last year, then that means they want me to be selfish. I'm not a selfish player. We have better players, so I have the opportunity to pass the ball more."

After a rough outing in the season opener against Orlando, Blatche is starting to find his groove again, averaging 20.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in the past two games. He had season-highs with 23 points and eight rebounds in the Wizards' 116-115 overtime win over Philadelphia on Tuesday. He provided the decisive points with 7.1 seconds remaining from the foul line, where he made an impressive 13 of 14 free throws.

Saunders urges the 6-foot-11 Blatche to get in the block more, since the Wizards have few low-post scoring options besides Yi. Blatche's aggression helped foul out Elton Brand, who had 21 points and was the 76ers' primary offense in the extra frame.

"You want him inside, he went inside more, and even though he missed some shots, he got to the free throw line," Saunders said. "By getting inside, not only do you get to the free throw line, but you put the other guy in foul trouble. Even though it took a while to get him out of the game, it paid off in the long run."

After watching film and talking with the coaching staff, Blatche has decided to move closer to the basket. "I told myself, I got to attack the rim until my shot comes back. Once my shot comes back, I'll switch it up, go in and out," said Blatche, whose jumper has been off this season, as he is shooting a career-low 35.6 percent (16 of 45) from the floor. He has been much more effective from 10 feet and in, where he is shooting 64.2 percent (9 for 14).

"When he does that, he's going to be tough," Hinrich said about Blatche going inside. "He's obviously skilled and can make jumpers, but when he puts pressure on the defense that really puts teams in a bind."

But Saunders said it would take some time for it all to come together. "Dray is a work in progress. I talked to him a lot. I tell him, 'If you're out of condition, you don't have the same pop in your step or the same athleticism,' " Saunders said. "He's working at it, it's just a hard go, trying to get the weight off him like he'd like to. We might have to make sure he's not getting any of the Snickers bars late at night, but he's working at it."

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