D.C.’s avant-guard

Listen to Eddie Jordan. After all, the Washington Wizards coach was a teammate of Magic Johnson’s, so he is used to recognizing greatness.

“[Gilbert Arenas is] going to prove, game after game, year after year, that he is going to be one of the best players to ever play the game, period,” he says.

Or listen to teammate Antonio Daniels, who has played with future Hall of Famer Ray Allen. He simply cuts off a reporter in mid-sentence.

“Look,” says Daniels, a nine-year veteran. “Gilbert is the best guard I’ve ever played with — and it’s not even close.”

At 24, Arenas already is a superstar. If there is any doubt, look no further than last season.

Arenas averaged 29.3 points a game, the fourth most in the league and the second most in franchise history. He ranked second in the NBA in 3-pointers (199), third in minutes (42.3) and free throws made (655) and fourth in steals (2.01) and still managed to hand out 6.1 assists a game, good enough for 18th in the league. He made his second consecutive All-Star team, though he was snubbed initially by Eastern Conference coaches and got on the roster only when commissioner David Stern stepped in.

But as great as Arenas was last season, there’s no doubt he can get better. After all, big questions loom: Can he lead the Wizards to a championship as his contemporary and good friend, Dwyane Wade, did last year in Miami? Or will Arenas end up like Vince Carter, Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett, statistical machines and, at least in the case of the latter two, eventual Hall of Famers who now seem unlikely to sip from the championship chalice?

After leading the Heat to a title, Wade, also 24, understands that every trip to the playoffs is a building block. He experienced playoff disappointment early with Miami but became more of a leader in that time. And leadership, according to Wade, is what Arenas must grasp.

“I don’t think there is any question whether he can lead his team to the next level,” Wade says. “He’s still one of the most underrated players in the league, but everyone knows that he can get 40 or 50 every night.

“Now he just has to do a better job of being a leader and letting his guys know that he’s going to be there for them, that he’ll kick it to them when they’re open and stuff like that. That comes to a player in time, and I think Gilbert is starting to understand that. If he really wants to win — and he does — that will come.”

For the rest of his career, especially if he remains in Washington — which team owner Abe Pollin says will be the case — Arenas is going to have to fight perceptions, which in the NBA come earned or otherwise.

The perception of a shoot-first point guard, of course, is that he doesn’t make the players around him better. So far in Washington, that perception doesn’t seem to be true.

For instance, Antawn Jamison, who put up great numbers in his first six seasons with the Warriors and Mavericks, didn’t make an All-Star team until he played with Arenas. Larry Hughes, who once played alongside Iverson in Philadelphia, was gifted a $65 million contract by Cleveland after sharing the backcourt alongside Arenas for two seasons. Caron Butler has played with both Wade and Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles. Butler had a career year in his first season in Washington in 2005-06, posting career highs in points (17.6), rebounds (6.2) and field goal percentage (.455).

Arenas understands in some circles he’s still not considered in the upper echelon of elite players, up there with, say, LeBron James, Wade and Carmelo Anthony.

To that end, Arenas, who is quirky but has a work ethic on par with anyone in the league — he often wakes up at 3 a.m. after games to work on his shot — wants his load to be even heavier.

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