Gerald Fitch last played organized football in high school, but he showed the instincts of a defensive back in a preseason game against the 76ers earlier this week, leaping in front of passing lanes to intercept the ball, collecting three steals and getting the Washington Wizards out on the run each time.
Fitch, an undrafted rookie from Kentucky, has proven to be an opportunistic defender in training camp and the preseason, waiting for his point guard counterparts to make a mistake and providing unrelenting pressure to force a turnover if the situation presents itself.
The Wizards have 14 players under contract (including Michael Ruffin, whose contract is partially guaranteed), so there is a spot for the taking on the 15-man roster. Fitch is hoping to step in and swipe it with the same ferocity with which he plays defense. "I'm trying to take advantage of the opportunity in front of me," said Fitch, who is fighting with fellow free agent guard Billy Thomas for backcourt playing time. "At the same time, I'm not looking too far ahead."
Fitch doesn't have to get ahead of himself. After all, he was already overlooked after averaging 16.2 points and being selected all-SEC first team by the conference's coaches. He averaged 15 points and six assists in three games at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament for draft hopefuls, but Fitch didn't bother attending the pre-draft camp in Chicago or watching the NBA draft in June.
"I kind of knew how the chips were going to fall before they did," Fitch said. "I'm here now, and things are looking pretty good. Things happen for a reason."
During the Wizards' 126-125 double-overtime preseason win against the expansion Charlotte Bobcats on Thursday, Fitch missed two free throws near the end of the first extra period, giving Bobcats point guard Jason Hart the opportunity to make a three-pointer to force another period.
"I was making free throws like that in college," said Fitch, "but it's a different feeling in the NBA but everybody goes through it. Guys like [Bobcats veteran swingman] Steve Smith told me I'm going to have a lot more chances. People told me, 'This is the NBA, now.' "
Fitch played with the Wizards in the summer league but got hurt after playing just three games. Still, he showed the Wizards enough to get invited back to training camp. Fitch arrived, however, with a greater opportunity. Steve Blake needed surgery on his ankle and was expected to be out until December, leaving the Wizards without a proven point guard to back up Gilbert Arenas.
Juan Dixon played the position when Arenas was out with an abdominal strain last season but is more suited for shooting guard. Anthony Peeler played the position in spells last season for the Sacramento Kings but Coach Eddie Jordan has no intention of using him there, either. Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld and Jordan have spoken glowingly of Fitch since training camp.
"He's going to have a good shot" of making the team, Jordan said. "How he didn't get drafted, I don't know. He's given us everything we're looking for -- especially on the defensive end. That's where we want to improve.
Fitch, however, has had difficulty learning the Princeton offense, which requires a lot of ball movement and sharing. Most of his scoring has come on the break. "It's a hard thing," Jordan said. "Our offense is different, it has a lot of nuances to it. But I like him."
Wizards Notes: Charlotte native Antawn Jamison hit a turnaround jumper over Tamar Slay with 6.8 seconds in the second overtime to win the game for the Wizards. Jamison logged 52 minutes and scored 20 points.
"Even though it was preseason, we treated it like it was a real game," Jamison said. "The only embarrassment is us not coming ready to play. Not to take anything away from Charlotte, but we didn't play smart at all."
Said Jordan: "When you're in a dogfight like that, it doesn't matter if it's April or December or January. That's a dogfight. . . . It doesn't matter if it's the third preseason game. That was a playoff atmosphere."
Jarvis Hayes led the Wizards with 31 points and 14 rebounds in 49 minutes. . . .
Gilbert Arenas re-injured his right ankle diving for a loose ball in the fourth quarter and missed the rest of the game. Arenas originally sprained his ankle in pre-game warmups Monday and wasn't slated to start until he informed Jordan that he could play. Arenas scored 18 points with seven assists against the Bobcats. . . . Larry Hughes sat out with tendinitis in his left knee. Dixon started in his place.