Wizards re-center after injury

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While the loss of starting center Brendan Haywood, who needs wrist surgery and will miss four to six months, is a blow to the Washington Wizards, the team is rather well-prepared for this type of situation.

Last year, the Wizards lost center Etan Thomas to a heart operation that sidelined him for the entire season. Only eight games into the season, franchise player Gilbert Arenas had a second surgery on his left knee and missed 66 consecutive games. And fellow All-Star Caron Butler missed 24 games of his own with injuries. But Washington found a way to overcome the absences and reach the playoffs for a fourth straight year.

The year before that, All-Star forward Antawn Jamison missed 12 games with injury, and Butler and Arenas both went down in April with hand and knee injuries, respectively. Again, the Wizards held on down the stretch to make the playoffs.

“We’ve been trying to get this team together for a long period of time, but unfortunately, injuries keep occurring,” said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, who in addition to Haywood’s loss is again without Arenas (knee surgery) at least until December. “But our entire organization, from [president] Ernie Grunfeld, to [Grunfeld’s assistants] Milt Newton and Tommy Sheppard, to the scouts, everyone’s done a great job of putting together a balanced roster. So it’s not just the coaches, or assistants. But we’ve been able to take these type of hits and still make the playoffs the last four years.

“We’ve been able to put together quality people, and quality players, so you look at [new additions of] the Dee Browns, and the JaVale McGees, and you know it’s been proven with the Roger Masons and stories like that of guys that help us overcome injuries.”

Jordan said he feels comfortable with the rotation of players he can plug in at center to replace Haywood, who last season averaged 10.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.

Thomas, who for his career has averaged 6.2 points and 5.1 rebounds, has looked strong during training camp and the first two preseason games. Jordan values Thomas’ veteran experience and has started him the last two games. But because of the rust of a year away from the game, Jordan knows he must bring Thomas along gradually. Thomas had six points, two rebounds and a block in 11 minutes of play in Tuesday’s preseason opener. On Wednesday night he recorded eight points and five rebounds in 18 minutes. Jordan expects to get roughly 20 effective minutes out of Thomas early on.

Sharing the load will be Andray Blatche, the versatile fourth-year big man. Blatche is more of a natural forward, but he spelled Haywood at center because of Thomas’ absence last season. In one start at center, the 6-foot-11 Blatche scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. In 14 starts at forward, he posted 11.4 points and 7.7 rebounds a game.

Jordan and his coaches, along with team veterans, this summer challenged Blatche to improve his work ethic, and he responded. It appears to have carried over into the preseason, but Jordan said the key for Blatche will be to contribute consistently at a high level for long stretches, rather than limited minutes off the bench.

Last week, Jordan sounded skeptical about how much of a contribution McGee would make in his rookie season out of Nevada. But after two preseason games, the 7-foot, 241-pound McGee has shown he may be ready to help the Wizards sooner rather than later. On Tuesday, he finished with seven points, three blocks and three rebounds in 12 minutes. On Wednesday, his 20 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes of play led Washington over Memphis.

“He sort of had his coming out party,” Jordan said. “Now, it’s only preseason, but it is an NBA game, and he keeps showing improvement. … He’s young, and still learning, but he’s a game changer in his own right.”

Jordan also could use power forward Darius Songaila at center when going with a smaller lineup.

Notes - The Wizards will hold off on making any roster cuts for at least a few more preseason games. Before Haywood’s injury, Washington carried 18 players. Jordan said training camp additions DerMarr Johnson, Linton Johnson and Taj McCullough are “still battling,” before adding, “We’ve got decisions to make, and they’re not making it easy.” …

Juan Dixon, out the last two games with a right calf injury, had a checkup Thursday, and Jordan thought the team soon would have a better indication of the state of his injury.

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