- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 21, 2004

BALTIMORE — Juan Dixon spent part of the summer training with Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis. The pairing was appropriate; the Washington Wizards guard wanted to hone his defense in preparation to become a more regular contributor this season.

However, the former University of Maryland star found himself playing a different kind of defense at his summer basketball camp. He had just finished discussing the importance of schoolwork and perseverance when he opened up the session for questions. A bunch of pint-sized Jim Grays began taking their shots at the sharpshooter.

“How long will you play for the Wizards?”

“Would you rather have been drafted by another team?”

“Do you want to be traded?”

Dixon may be one of Baltimore’s favorite sons, but it is clear the city does not have the same fondness for the closest NBA team. The tone of questioning suggested the young fans wanted their hometown hero to leave the perennial losers for a new team.

They soon may get their wish.

The 6-foot-3 shooting guard was left unprotected in the expansion draft for the Charlotte Bobcats. The team was allowed to protect eight players, and point guard Steve Blake — a former Terrapins teammate and second-round pick last season — was among those who made the list over Dixon, a first-round selection (17th overall) in 2002.

“I wasn’t surprised,” Dixon said after speaking at the camp at Loyola College. “I want to be in Washington my whole career. But if I was picked up, then it was time for me to move.”

Dixon will find out next month whether he is in Washington’s long-term plans. He is entering the final season of a three-year contract that will pay him $1.3million for 2004-05. However, the Wizards have a team option for another season and must inform him by Oct.31 whether they plan to keep him for 2005-06. If the club does not commit to Dixon for a fourth season — at $2.1million — he will become an unrestricted free agent.

“We haven’t made that decision,” said Ernie Grunfeld, Washington’s president of basketball operations. “We have to see how things develop and figure the future of the ballclub into the situation and see where we are financially in terms of the salary cap.”

The Wizards face the same decision with Jared Jeffries, but the team is expected to waste little time locking up the 6-11 forward for a fourth season, just as it did before last season with centers Kwame Brown and Brendan Haywood. First-round picks are guaranteed a three-year deal by league rules, and the team has an option for another season at a slotted raise based on a player’s draft position.

Washington has put a priority on big men, which makes the status of Dixon — who is four inches shorter than second-year shooting guard Jarvis Hayes, also a first-round pick — even murkier.

Dixon averaged 9.4 points, made 30 percent of his 3-pointers and played 21 minutes a game last season. He started 16 games and had a career-high 30 points against Portland in January.

“[The Wizards’ decision] doesn’t matter though,” Maryland’s all-time leading scorer said. “This is the year right here. This is going to be my biggest year yet. Believe that. I feel totally different. …

“People know what I can do. Other teams know. If the Wizards don’t know, other teams definitely know. When I got the opportunity to play consistent minutes, people know.”

To ensure he gets more playing time, Dixon is emphasizing defense and ballhandling this offseason.

“I wish my role was a little more defined, but we have a lot of guys that are being paid a lot more money that I am paid,” he said. “I know it’s a money thing at times, but I am going to go out there and give it 110 percent every day. I am going to push Gilbert [Arenas]. I am going to push Larry [Hughes].”

The signing of free agent shooting guard Anthony Peeler, who Grunfeld said brings valuable playoff experience, could continue to limit Dixon’s minutes. Peeler joins starter Hughes, Hayes and Dixon.

Grunfeld said exposing Dixon in the expansion draft simply was because of numbers.

“I don’t take anything out of that,” Grunfeld said. “You can’t protect everybody. Juan’s role is going to be defined by him. Juan’s role right now is to be a spark. Last year he was a big spark off the bench. He can get you eight, 10, 12 points quickly and changes games. This year he will define his role.”

Dixon didn’t take it personally, either.

“It’s a business,” he said. “I have learned that. I understand that. At times, you have to be selfish. I have learned all that. I have been through it for two years. I know what it takes to be successful. Destiny is my hands. It’s all on me.”

With that understanding, he hired a basketball trainer in the offseason. And he took a less conventional route toward making himself stronger physically and mentally by spending time with Lewis, one of NFL’s most vicious hitters.

“I had an opportunity to work out with Ray Lewis for a couple weeks,” Dixon said. “That was great, seeing how focused he is and his intensity — just seeing what it takes to be great. I have learned that.”

It has been a two-year crash course in the NBA for Dixon, on and off the court. He has played for two coaches, seen a roster overhaul after the eviction of Michael Jordan and now is facing questions about his own future, even from innocent, young campers.

“I love the Wizards. But if I have to move on, I will,” Dixon said. “Of course, you need minutes to be successful and produce, but you have to make the coaches want to play you also. I have to make Coach [Eddie] Jordan and that staff want to make me a part of that rotation. I just want to get an opportunity.”

By Halloween, he will know whether the Wizards will give it to him.

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