When the Washington Wizards opened the season without Antawn Jamison, Andray Blatche did his best impersonation of the All-Star power forward.
Blatche averaged 21.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in the first three games of the season. But those surprisingly strong performances raised a question: How long would they last for a player whose first four pro seasons were marked by flashes of promise followed by lengthy stretches of disappointment?
Entering this season, Blatche said things would be different.
He had a newfound work ethic sparked by a good talking-to from his mother. He was helped by the arrivals of new coach Flip Saunders, who had coached his idol Kevin Garnett, and assistant Sam Cassell, who like Saunders often worked with Blatche over the summer.
Blatche's numbers settled down slightly after the initial burst but remained solid. The true test, however, was expected to come when Jamison returned and Blatche no longer was playing a steady flow of minutes.
The Wizards needn't have worried. Washington (7-13) is struggling, but the play of Blatche remains one of the few bright spots: He's posting career-best numbers of 10.8 points and 5.4 rebounds.
"He's probably been - if you look at both offense and defense and everything - he's probably been our most consistent guy," Saunders said. "I think when you have a guy that's playing that well, you've got to find minutes for him, whether it's at the center spot or wherever. But we're going to have to play him more because he's being consistent and he's playing well."
In a 104-102 loss Thursday against Boston, Blatche played his finest game since Jamison returned, coming off the bench to post 17 points, five steals, three assists and three rebounds. His nine-point scoring spree in the fourth quarter helped the Wizards rally from an 83-74 deficit and gave them a chance to beat the Celtics.
Blatche doesn't get consistent playing time behind Jamison and center Brendan Haywood. But, displaying the mental adjustment that's been the key to his improvement, Blatche has managed to avoid getting discouraged and derailed.
"I'm just an opportunist on this team. When the opportunity strikes, I try to take full advantage of it," Blatche said. "Antawn's an All-Star. I know how the game goes. I'm playing behind a great player, and I can't complain. As long as I come out and give it my all, everyone knows I'm a great player. Just stay focused and stay ready. Your mind is the strongest thing in basketball, so my mind is right, and I'm staying committed and focused and putting in all the things I need to put in."
Blatche slipped into a mini-funk when Jamison first returned and he didn't get consistent playing time off the bench. When pulled from games, Blatche demonstrated his displeasure with Saunders, who sat him down for an attitude adjustment.
"There have been times that I haven't played him because of his body language," Saunders said. "I told him at the beginning of year that if he comes out [of the game] kind of mopey, I don't care how well he's been playing, I'm not going to put him back in because he's going to have to learn. Body language can be - especially with a young guy - such a drainer to the rest of the team."
Blatche got the message.
"When Antawn first came back, I admit my body language was a little off. But I had to refocus," Blatche said. "So, I'm playing a high level of basketball, but I'm also playing behind a great player. So I just have to stay focused, keep that in perspective and keep doing what you're doing."
The Wizards, now past the injuries that hampered them early this season, think they still have a chance to climb into the ranks of contenders. If they're to do so, they'll need Blatche to maintain his high level of play.
"We need him to continue to play this way," Haywood said. "Because 6-foot-11 guys that can handle, post up, shoot the 3, the medium-range, long, can block shots - they don't come along that often. So I'm happy to see him take steps forward, because I know where he can be."
By Mark Mix
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