Juan Dixon has to play.
How many minutes and in what situations, in which matchups and against what teams, is the delightful problem that now faces Wizards Coach Doug Collins. But the days of 35 minutes in 13 games are almost certainly gone forever.
Dixon saw to that last night with 15 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and, in a tight fourth-quarter battle against the Pacers, 6 steals. Yes, six steals in a quarter.
"Juan's got to be in our rotation," Collins said.
Those words should delight local fans who've come to adore the slender but swift guard who is Maryland's all-time leading scorer and took the Terrapins to their only NCAA title last season.
Last night Dixon had his NBA coming-out party in MCI Center. After his blaze of points, rebounds and steals, things have changed. The former Maryland all-American opened eyes and kicked down doors in just the way every NBA rookie dreams of doing, especially when skeptics surround him.
In 24 minutes, Dixon electrified the crowd, energized his teammates and terrified the Indiana Pacers, who saw their 19-point lead slashed to almost nothing in the closing minutes. If star Jerry Stackhouse hadn't suffered a nightmare game, shooting 2 for 16 for six points in 39 minutes, and Michael Jordan, who scored 28, hadn't missed two free throws and two open shots in the closing minutes, the Pacers would never have escaped with an 88-84 win.
Even in defeat, however, nobody on either team wanted to talk about anybody except Dixon and fellow rookie Jared Jeffries, who brought a comparable charge of speed and hustle to the Wizards.
"Juan came in with unbelievable energy. . . . We were walking around in a fog. . . . He got the crowd in it," Jordan said. "Juan was everywhere."
Check for the last time Jordan praised a rookie.
"I was hoping they would take Juan out of the game," Pacers Coach Isiah Thomas said. "He was hitting shots, stealing the ball, getting to the basket on the high screen and roll."
But with Larry Hughes out with a strained wrist and Tyronn Lue shooting 1 for 9, Collins stuck with Dixon for the entire fourth quarter. Jeffries and Etan Thomas also teamed with Jordan and Stackhouse all the way down the stretch as the Wizards showed more all-court speed and capacity to create havoc than at any point so far in their 6-8 season.
"Fourteen steals . . . that's how we have to play," Collins said. "We all knew Juan could play. That's no secret. . . . But sometimes a coach has got to give everybody a chance. And then sometimes you have to give other people a chance. We think Juan is going to be a great player."
Translation: Dixon finally got a chance, capitalized on it in a big way and will have to be given serious consideration for playing time, even though he has obvious weaknesses. He still can't dribble effectively to his left against NBA quality defenders. He's still a "tweener," who's neither a pure point guard nor a strict shooting guard. As Collins said: "I don't want Juan to be a point guard. I want him to be a player."
In recent days, Jordan has chastised the Wizards' young players who haven't consistently contributed as much as they might. "If they step forward and play, I may not get the increase in minutes and you won't hear me gripe," he said. "If they don't play well . . ."
Jordan didn't mean Dixon, however, who'd hardly gotten to play at all this season, as seemed to befit the sixth man in the perimeter rotation, even if he was the 17th player picked in the NBA draft. Despite his reputation as one of the best clutch scorers and defenders in college basketball in recent years, Dixon was, as always, dogged by his slender 164-pound and 6-foot-3 frame, considered short for a scoring guard.
Though Jordan hadn't called him out, Dixon answered anyway. It might be interesting to know his thoughts on such a pivotal evening in his young career. But Dixon apparently understands that rookies, especially those who are famous because of home area roots, need to be careful about hogging the spotlight. So, by the time the Wizards' locker room was open, Dixon was Juan gone -- leaving without a word to the media. The guy's so quick he can steal his own thunder.
Perhaps it's better when others sing your praises. Especially if Jordan is one of them. His Airness was delighted with the tempo transformation that Dixon and Jeffries, the Wizards' other first-round draft choice, immediately brought to the game.
"That was the most energy we have shown in a long time," Jordan said. "Hopefully, that's going to lead us to play some inspired basketball."
What distinguished Dixon most was not just his statistics, but his fierce, relentless competitiveness. He looked like the 11-2 Pacers held no more fear for him than Wake Forest, attacking rather than reacting. Early in the fourth quarter, in three consecutive possessions, he hit a running 12-footer off a fast break, drove through heavy traffic for a layup, then penetrated the lane for an in-everybody's-face pull-up jumper.
Twice he had clean strips, then broke away for uncontested layups for four of his 12 fourth-quarter points. As Stackhouse and Jordan piled up crucial misses, Dixon piled up points. One play in the last 10 seconds, however, with the Wizards' trailing 87-82, may have told more about Dixon's makeup than any other moment. Just as the game seemed lost for sure, he stole the ball from a stunned Reggie Miller and laid it in to cut the lead to three points with nine seconds left.
Call it defiance. But coaches and teammates remember.
"I've always had one rule," Collins said. "When in doubt, you go with your competitors. We had some of our best competitors on the floor at the end."
Jeffries and Thomas can stand tall in that roll call.
But Juan Dixon, from whom much more will be heard and sooner than many thought, can stand the tallest.