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D.C.’s avant-guard

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 1, 2006

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.

"I have to take control -- I have to be dominant in all areas of the game," Arenas says. "I have to be willing to go out there and show that I'm a leader in all facets of the game."

That, however, won't be easy. Superstars are the easiest of targets. If their teams falter, they receive the bulk of the blame. And because they tend to have dominant personalities, they also must make sure they don't offend the egos of their teammates, something Kobe Bryant has learned the hard way.

"It's walking a fine line," Arenas says. "You are only as good as your teammates, period. You can never point the finger at them and blame them for something because they are the guys who are going to go to battle with you. That's how you can get labeled a selfish player."

Former Wizards guard Richard Hamilton, who won a championship with the Pistons three seasons ago, is a big fan of Arenas. He explains that getting better is about adding nuances each year.

Already equipped with perhaps the best midrange game in the league -- modeled after former Indiana Pacers great Reggie Miller -- Hamilton knew he needed to add more to his game, so he worked feverishly on his outside shot.

Last season, he led the league in 3-point percentage (.458). And as a result, the Pistons, despite losing Ben Wallace to Chicago, are still considered championship contenders.

"[Scoring is] very important," he says. "When you come into the league, you want to show that you can score. But you don't want people to look at you and say that's all you can do. That's the reason why I say you have to do other things and let people know you have a complete game."

Jordan sees Arenas doing these things.

The team-wide emphasis on defense, Jordan says, has caught on with Arenas, who admits he still has a long way to go defensively. And at the offensive end, Jordan sees Arenas making adjustments he didn't used to, such as passing out of a double team instead of attacking it.

"It's a process with Gil, just like it is with any other player," Jordan says. "The key is to keep working at all those things, to keep listening and to maintain a great work ethic. Gil does all of that."

His teammates don't want him to change in that respect. They like the quirks. They like that he's at Verizon Center shooting when everyone else is in bed.

To them, the approach -- and the process -- is going well.

"He's a strong-minded individual -- he'll be fine," says Daniels, who won a championship with San Antonio in 1999. "There is no reason for him to put any more pressure on himself than he has at any other time in his career. He just needs to continue doing all the things that he's been doing. His mind-set doesn't need to change at all."