As the Washington Wizards tip-off another season Wednesday night at home against the New Jersey Nets, they know the answers to a few key questions.
Gilbert Arenas’ thrice surgically repaired knee will keep him sidelined for at least the first month of the season. Starting center Brendan Haywood will miss up to six months because of a wrist surgery to his shooting hand. The All-Star tandem of Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler again will have to carry a heavy load for the team to succeed.
But there is one question that remains unanswered: Who will step up to deliver the career year needed to ease the sting of the early absences, to help this team get over that first-round playoff hurdle for the first time in four seasons?
Veterans Antonio Daniels, DeShawn Stevenson and center Etan Thomas will round out the starting lineup, but beyond that is somewhat of a mystery.
Second-year guard Nick Young is a capable scorer, but he still is growing on both ends of the floor. Fellow second-year player Dominic McGuire has greatly improved his game, but the small forward is more reliable for his defensive skills.
And so the logical choice for that wild card player, the piece to complete the puzzle, would seem to be fourth-year forward/center Andray Blatche, a 6-foot-11, 258-pound player capable of playing three positions. But the question is whether he now can do something the Wizards have been waiting for him to do for three - going on four - seasons now: grow up.
“Andray’s the wild card,” Jamison says. “We need him to be consistent. We need Andray this year more than we need anybody. We need him to bring energy night in and night out. And I’m not talking about four out of five games. Every night. There’s no reason Andray shouldn’t be averaging 14, 15 points game.”
The challenge was first issued soon after the Wizards suffered their season-ending loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in May.
For the Wizards to take a step forward the following season, team management, the coaching staff and the veteran leaders all agreed they would need more from one of their most versatile - and inconsistent - players.
Blatche always had the tools, plus some. He could sky for rebounds and blocks, step out to the perimeter and knock down a 3-pointer, even bring the ball up the court in a pinch.
The problem was he hadn’t found a way to do so on a consistent basis. In 15 games as a starter because of injuries to teammates, he averaged 11.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.93 blocks. But in the other 67 games, he mustered just 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds off the bench.
The diagnosis: Blatche needed to improve his focus and intensify his work ethic. If those things happened, the Wizards believed Blatche could give a team with three All-Stars yet another weapon, and maybe, just maybe, the Wizards finally would get over the first-round stumbling block that had snagged them three straight seasons.
Blatche heard the challenges and during the summer “turned into a gym rat,” doing everything he could to improve his game. He even led the Wizards’ summer league team - normally designated for rookies, second-year players and free agent hopefuls - to Las Vegas, believing the extra action would give him a head start.
Coach Eddie Jordan appreciated the extra work, and team captains Jamison and Butler took note, but as the team headed to training camp, they continued to challenge Blatche, prodding him for more.
As the months leading up to the season unfolded - Arenas and Haywood underwent surgery, and Jamison missed a week with a strained knee - the Wizards’ need for Blatche only increased.