Moments after completing his first practice with the Washington Wizards' summer league team on July 3, Andray Blatche stood in front of MCI Center wearing an expression common to people making their first visit to the nation's capital.
"Excuse me, do you know where this hotel is?" Blatche asked a security guard. "I think I came in on the other side but I'm not really sure what direction I came from."
As Blatche tried to find his bearings, two attractive young women strolled past, took notice of Blatche's 6-foot-11 frame and made the obvious correlation.
"Are you one of the Wizards?" one of the women asked as her friend giggled. "You're tall."
Blatche broke into a shy grin, offered a polite "yes," and continued trying to figure out exactly where he was.
Since the Wizards selected him out of high school in the second round of the NBA draft in June, life has presented one new experience after another for Blatche, who celebrates his 19th birthday today.
Blatche's first NBA summer has included his first visit to Washington; his first practice on the MCI Center game floor, under the watch of Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld and Coach Eddie Jordan; six games in the Las Vegas summer league, where he faced NBA-caliber competition for the first time; and a visit to New York, where he posed for his first basketball card.
Blatche also recently completed a second trip to Las Vegas, where he joined about 70 NBA players for a skills camp.
"Things have been happening real fast," Blatche said recently from his home in Syracuse, N.Y. "It's been nice to get a little time off and just chill a little bit because it was pretty intense with summer league and camp."
Blatche kicked things off with an impressive performance in Las Vegas, where he averaged 9.5 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 43.1 percent from the field in six summer league games.
Grunfeld and Jordan were impressed with Blatche's ability to swing between shooting guard, small forward and power forward while quickly picking up the nuances of the offense. His teammates were surprised at the way he stepped on the court and blended in with more experienced and, in some cases, more physically developed players.
"I've had the chance to play overseas and I played four years of college ball [at Kentucky], so for me, it was really impressive to see Andray just come out there and play with the poise he did considering that it was his first taste of basketball at this level," said point guard Gerald Fitch, who led the Wizards' summer leaguers in scoring. "He didn't play with any intimidation. He played like he knew he belonged."
Blatche, who didn't start playing organized basketball until his freshman year of high school, credits much of his development to the experience he gained last winter playing at South Kent Prep, a Connecticut school that gained attention when Dorell Wright was drafted from there in the first round of the 2004 draft by the Miami Heat. After four years at Henninger High in Syracuse, Blatche went to South Kent with the idea that another year of basketball would help him land a scholarship with a Division I college team.
South Kent Coach Raphael Chillious first heard about Blatche from a former college buddy who lived in Syracuse and went to watch Blatche, who was then in his senior year at Henninger.
"He called me and said, 'You've got to come see this kid,' " Chillious recalled. "When I saw him, he was raw. You could tell that he hadn't played a lot of basketball but he had nice skills, and you could tell that he had an NBA body. It was just a matter of playing a lot of basketball and developing that physical potential."
When college recruiters visited South Kent last winter, they saw a player with a seven-foot wingspan who could dribble, shoot and pass and never seemed to get tired. Blatche averaged 27.5 points, 16 rebounds and 6 blocks and led the Cardinals to a 32-9 record. By the end of the season, Blatche was being observed by NBA scouts.
"After a while, every college coach that came in said there was no way this kid was going to college, he's too good," Chillious said. "He really did everything for us but the thing I loved about Andray is that he could've scored 40 a game but he's so unselfish. He would catch guys off guard with his passes and there were times when we would have to tell him, 'Andray, it's okay, just go ahead and score.' The Wizards are getting a talented, coachable kid who wants to get better every single day."
Blatche made the decision to enter the draft after earning co-MVP honors in the Jordan Classic all-star game at Madison Square Garden in New York in April. He said the NBA's interest in establishing an age limit in the new collective bargaining agreement did not affect his decision.
"Right up to the day of the draft, I had people telling me that I was going in the first round," Blatche said. "That's why I did it. I felt I couldn't pass up that opportunity."
Blatche watched the draft with friends and family, fully expecting he would be a first-round pick. Instead, Blatche fell out of the first round and was still available when Washington grabbed him deep into the second, with the 49th selection overall.
"It was disappointing because I really thought I would go higher but then when I saw where I was going and everything, I felt better about it," Blatche said last month. "It was a little bit humbling, but that just motivates me to work even harder."
There are no clear reasons why he fell down the draft order. One explanation is that in the bottom half of the first round and in the early part of the second round, teams bucked the recent trend of bypassing college players by selecting experienced forwards with college experience such as Cincinnati's Jason Maxiell (Pistons), Kansas's Wayne Simien (Heat), Florida's David Lee (Knicks) and Gonzaga's Ronny Turiaf (Lakers).
"Obviously, we love Andray's potential," Grunfeld said. "To tell you the truth, there is no way we thought he would be there when we drafted, so we didn't think we'd get him. But we're going to do everything we can to work with him and help him develop. It's going to be a process but we think that with time, as he adds strength and gets more comfortable with this level of play, he's going to be a very good basketball player."
Blatche said his experience at South Kent, which is a boarding school, prepared him for what lies ahead in ways that have nothing to do with basketball. A typical day at South Kent begins with a 6 a.m. wake-up call and includes classes, practice and a mandatory evening study hall. By the time students are given free time around 9:45 p.m., it's almost time to hit the sack and start all over again.
"I think prep school is harder than college," Blatche said. "There is way less free time. We played more games than we did in high school and we traveled everywhere by bus. There would be times when you'd have to sleep on the bus ride home, get back to school and be up in time for class. I learned a lot about how to manage my time and balance everything that we had going on. It was a good learning experience."
Coming on the heels of the failed Kwame Brown experiment, everyone in the Wizards organization is hoping that Blatche can adjust to the far less regimented life of an NBA player. Come October, when most kids his age are preparing for college homecoming festivities, Blatche will be at his first NBA training camp. Then starts the cycle of games, practices, shoot-arounds, flights and hotel stays that mark the NBA season.
The Wizards plan to bring Blatche along slowly, and he will enter his first season with none of the hype or pressure faced by Brown when Michael Jordan, then the team's president of basketball operations, selected him directly out of high school in 2001. The drafting of Blatche was made solely with the future in mind.
A provision in the new collective bargaining agreement will allow teams to use the NBA's developmental league as a sort of farm system for inexperienced players. Teams can send a player who is in his first two seasons down to the developmental league as many as three times a year, so the Wizards will have the option of having Blatche get game action if he doesn't carve out a space for himself in Eddie Jordan's rotation.
"I'm excited about it but I'm also nervous because it's going to be for real now," Blatche said. "Summer league gave me an idea of what the NBA is like but I'm sure it's going to be a whole new experience once we get to camp and start practicing."