No one was more surprised than Earl Barron.
The Washington Wizards‘ 31-year-old journeyman center was considered a long shot to make the team, but injuries to front-court players during training camp made coach Randy Wittman realize that a 7-footer just might come in handy.
So, as the season began, Barron waited at the end of the bench for his turn. And waited. And as the team suffered injury after injury, combined with some inconsistent play from the center position, Wittman finally called Barron’s number.
“At halftime, he told me I was going to start, so I just had to prepare myself,” Barron said. “He just wanted to see some energy, and for me to try to give us a little boost out there. He wanted me to just play hard.”
Barron did. His shots didn’t fall, and he went just 2 of 10 from the floor, but he pulled down a team-high 14 rebounds and blocked four shots.
Again, Barron didn’t provide much offense, as he went just 1 for 6 for two points, but he did manage to pull down five rebounds.
“This league is a matter of being ready when your name is called,” Barron said. “Coach threw me in unexpectedly, and I was ready to go out there and battle.”
Barron began his NBA career in 2004 as a free agent with Orlando, but he lasted all of 10 days before being waived.
He returned the following season with Miami, where he spent the next three seasons.
Before landing in Washington, Barron also had stints with New York, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Portland and Golden State.
He’s largely been a spectator while watching his teammates struggle to a 3-20 record. He’s played in just 10 games but is beginning to work his way into the rotation.
Regular starting center Nene still is coming off the bench as he plays his way back into shape, Emeka Okafor has been inconsistent and Jan Vesely has fallen out of the rotation, appearing in just two of the past nine games.
Sometimes it takes a journeyman bench player to bring something a little different to the table, on and off the court.
“If I see guys kind of down, I tell them, ‘Keep your head up, you never know what could happen,’” Barron said. “If you’re playing a lot or playing a little, you’ve got to stay focused with the task at hand and hopefully we’ll turn it around.”
The Wizards are in the midst of their most grueling stretch of the season so far — four games in five nights for two straight weeks — and whether they’ll admit it or not, have to be a bit fatigued right now. They’re languishing at the bottom of the NBA standings, can’t close out games, and occasionally, still revert to the kind of “me first” ball that drives Wittman crazy.
“It’s not looking the best,” Barron said of the team’s record. “But all of these close games, you take away all the little mistakes and we’ll be a .500 team. It’s just a matter of a few plays and a few mistakes that’s keeping us from getting wins.”