Wednesday, September 22, 2010 12:05 a.m.
By Frank Hanrahan
It's John Wall's team, but he'll need forward Andray Blatche to pickup where he left off at the end of last season if the Wizards want to change their fortunes after a dismal 26-56 campaign. That could be tough with such a young team and with Blatche, believe it or not, as the Wizards most tenured frontcourt player.
After the Wizards dealt Antawn Jamsion, Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler right around the trade deadline last February, the 24-year-old forward Blatche led the Wizards from that point on. He averaged 22 points 8 rebounds and 3 assists in his last 32 games of the season, but the team went just 9-23.
Blatche, like other young Wizards, had shown promise in his first four seasons but was never a consistent performer until those final 32 games. Seemingly overnight, he went from role player to the main man. His repertoire expanded to include a reliable jumper as well as solid post moves, and he became much better finishing on the break. Plus, Blatche was in good condition, unlike in previous seasons when questions were raised about his fitness and his level of commitment.
Blatche will have to get back into playing shape because he broke his foot this summer but maintained that he will be ready for training camp when it starts next Tuesday at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Whenever he is ready to go, Blatche will start at power forward with JaVale McGee at center.
Although it was just summer league, McGee put on a dynamic performance in July with YouTube type dunks, blocks and even a coast to coast behind the back dribble and finish that had Wizards fans thinking that maybe the ridiculously athletic 7-footer will finally break out this upcoming season. It also didn't hurt to have top pick guard John Wall finding McGee on the fast break and running the seamless two man game, as they together created easy looks for McGee. He literally fed off the floor leadership of Wall, averaging almost a double-double, 19.5 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, as the Wizards went 4-1 in Las Vegas.
McGee's confidence has to be high after the Vegas performance and his near selection to the final roster for the U.S. men's national team that competed in the FIBA world championships this summer. McGee was uneven in his play while practicing with the national team, and that has been the knock on him in his first two NBA seasons. One moment offensively he will have a jaw dropping rock the baby to sleep dunk, the next an ill advised fade away jumper. There is no doubt defensively he can be a factor with his length and ability to block shots, but he has to get stronger down low to match bigger players on the block.
McGee has averaged just 6 points and about 4 rebounds in roughly 15 minutes of play in his first two years, and his playing time will likely double this season as he becomes the teams starting center.
Penciled in for now at starting power forward is 7 footer Yi Jianlan who came over to D.C. in another off season trade from New Jersey. "Yi fits in very well with our ongoing plan of building towards the future with a core of young, talented players", Wizards team president Ernie Grunfeld said at the time of the trade in June. Yi has potential to be a solid NBA player but that's when healthy. Last season with the Nets, Yi played in just 52 games and averaged 12 points and 7 rebounds in 32 minutes of play. He is only 22 years old but he enters his fourth NBA season and the Wizards hope he is just coming into his own.
Yi played well this summer for Chinas national team at the World Championships, averaging 20 and 10. "Yi may not have found the right situation, but he's put up some good numbers and he's had some good experience," Grunfeld said.
The Wizards hope that at 4 million, Josh Howard is a steal this season. The former All-Star small forward in Dallas was shipped to D.C. after the Mavs reportedly became fed up with his antics off the court. But his play with the Wizards, before he blew out his knee last February, was solid, as he averaged 17 points over a 4 game span. A torn ACL and rehab will keep Howard out of training camp and the start of the regular season. But when he does come back, he gives the Wizards an offensive weapon that, when hot, is hard to defend against.
Off the bench will likely be forwards Al Thornton, rookies Trevor Booker and the Frenchman Kevin Seraphin. These three players roles will be simple. Do the dirty work. Bang the boards, get rebounds and play physical. The 6'-8 Thornton was a former first round pick out of Florida State and he too is looking to be more consistent as he heads into his fourth season.
Its hard to know what the Wizards will get out of Booker and Seraphin, but the team is hoping they can provide energy, defensive presence and pounding of the glass for rebounds. That would be a good start. Booker was a stat machine at Clemson, which helped him earn a first round NBA draft selection. He was the first Atlantic Coast Conference player ever to amass 1,500 points, grab 1,000 rebounds, get 200 blocks, 200 assists and 100 steals in his college career. Impressive? Sure. But that was college, this is the league.
Elsewhere in the frontcourt, could there be a good ending in store for Hilton Armstrong? Because the first four NBA seasons for the former first round pick have been a disappointment, the Wizards took a relative gamble on Armstrong in signing him to a one-year deal. He looks to have a good chance of making the final roster and would be a backup center to Javale McGee.
Like the backcourt, the frontcourt is a youthful bunch, so Wizards fans can expect some growing pains in the upcoming season.