-- The Washington Wizards were going through a half-court drill Tuesday morning, the first day of training camp on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University, when all-star guard Gilbert Arenas found himself defending Chucky Atkins.
Arenas crouched into a defensive stance that would have made Gene Hackman's character in "Hoosiers" proud. As Atkins started to dribble, Arenas reached in, swatted the ball away and forced Atkins to chase the ball down near midcourt.
The effort drew applause from Coach Eddie Jordan and Arenas's teammates, who are clearly buying into Jordan's belief that the Wizards must become a better defensive team after allowing opponents to shoot 45.9 percent and average 100.8 points per game last season.
Of course, it would help if such a movement were led by the franchise player.
"They're going to make me play D this year," joked Arenas, who finished seventh in the league in scoring with a 25.5 points per game average last season but didn't exactly earn a reputation as a lockdown defender.
"It's about growing up and that's one of the areas where I have to grow up in," Arenas said. "I worked hard this summer on all of my abilities and that's one of them. I'm going to take defense very serious this year and if I start slacking off, I have teammates who will keep me into it."
Any defensive improvement must come despite the absence of guard Larry Hughes, the team's best defender last season who signed with Cleveland as a free agent over the summer. Hughes typically drew the opposing team's best offensive guard, and his uncanny knack for reading the passing lanes helped him lead the league in steals.
Jordan believes his team can improve defensively even without Hughes because the addition of Atkins should allow Arenas more rest, which in turn should allow Arenas to expend more energy on the defensive end.
Also, Jordan is banking on the addition of guard Antonio Daniels and the healthy return of swingman Jarvis Hayes to change the team's overall defensive approach. Daniels won't play the passing lanes like Hughes, but he's a tough on-the-ball defender who often closed out games for Seattle last season in place of starting point guard Luke Ridnour.
"With Brendan [Haywood] back there, we did a good job at the rim," said Jordan of his 7-foot, 266-pound, fifth-year center. "What I want is for us to do a better job of cutting off penetration. We were able to get a lot of steals playing the passing lanes and that's good, but we can't allow guys to just blow by us and get into the paint. That's where we were hurt a lot of times defensively."
However, Jordan is preaching defense with one caveat: He still wants to score in bunches. The Wizards ranked sixth in scoring with a 100.5 points per game average while shooting a solid 43.7 percent last season. Arenas, Jamison and Hughes were the league's top scoring trio, and the Wizards led the NBA in offensive rebounding.
"We have to be balanced," Jordan said. "We have to execute on offense but, at the same time, we have to play better defense. We have to remember who we are. I'm going to go with my strength. If I think that we're a pressure team that's going to create turnovers like we did last year, that's what we'll do. If I think we have the personnel to be a little more physical, to be a little more half-court oriented and not press as much, that's what we'll do. A lot of it is about personnel."
But it's also about attitude, according to Caron Butler, who played under one of the most defensive-minded coaches in NBA history, Pat Riley, as a rookie with the Miami Heat. Butler, who was acquired in the offseason along with Atkins from the Los Angeles Lakers for forward Kwame Brown, has averaged 13.5 points per game during his first three years in the league while swinging between shooting guard and small forward. He believes the Wizards can use better defense to feed their offense.
"Defense can help you get on some magnificent runs and put teams away," Butler said. "That's what we're looking forward to because we know we can score. We have a lot of offensive-minded guys that can fill it up so, if we get stops, we'll have no problems on the other end."
Wizards Notes: On the health front, Jamison, who is coming off knee surgery, Hayes, who missed the second half of last season with a fractured knee, and center Etan Thomas, who was bothered by an abdominal strain throughout the season, worked at full speed during the morning session.
As a precaution, Hayes rode a stationary bike during the evening practice while Thomas did abdominal work on the side with a trainer. After practicing twice Tuesday, the team will practice once Wednesday, twice Thursday and once Friday.