- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Eight weeks ago, Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin asked season ticket holders for the summer to reshape the franchise, a grace period to prove his commitment after the Michael Jordan debacle. If they were still dissatisfied come September, ticket deposit money would be refunded.

It appears the time so far has been well spent.

The signing of free agent point guard Gilbert Arenas, one of the most coveted players in this year’s free agent class, to a six-year, $65million offer sheet late Monday capped a furious 34-day period in which a seemingly aimless team found some kind of direction.

On June 18, a week before the NBA Draft, the Wizards had no coach, no general manager, no frontline point guard and no proven scorer aside from guard Jerry Stackhouse. Since then, the team has picked up Ernie Grunfeld as president of basketball operations, Eddie Jordan as coach and forward Jarvis Hayes and guard Steve Blake in the draft; extended its contract with Stackhouse; and now landed Arenas.

The 21-year-old Arenas represents the Wizards’ first impact free-agent pickup since Bernard King in 1987.

And suddenly, a potential starting five of Arenas and Stackhouse in the backcourt, Hayes on the wing, Kwame Brown at power forward and Brendan Haywood at center does not appear lacking in the always suspect Eastern Conference.

The average age of that group is 22.8 years and does not include 21-year-old Jared Jeffries, who is expected to press Hayes for minutes at small forward. More broadly, nine of the 12 Wizards under contract are 25 or younger.

“This is a new beginning for us,” Grunfeld said. “We now have, we think, a very strong nucleus of good, young players, and that’s the direction we want to go. We want to go young and get a core of players we can build around. Gilbert fits right in that. He’s a proven commodity and still only 21. Better yet, this shows that Washington can be a destination for good, young free agents. Over time, we hope that can lead to more such signings.”

The Golden State Warriors, for whom Arenas averaged 18.3 points, 6.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds last season, still have 15 days to match the Wizards’ offer and retain his rights. But with the Warriors already over the salary cap by nearly $5million and only the $4.9million mid-level exception available to offer Arenas this season, matching Washington’s contract is highly unlikely.

The Warriors already are set to sign San Antonio’s Speedy Claxton to replace Arenas.

“It was a very, very tough decision,” Dan Fegan, Arenas’ agent, said to the Associated Press. “He had a great year last year with Golden State. It was a tough decision to leave. The [Los Angeles] Clippers were the other team he was looking at. It was a close call.”

The Arenas signing, however, is not without some complications for Washington. Arenas reunites with Wizards guard Larry Hughes, with whom he failed to mesh in the Golden State backcourt during the 2001-02 season. The Wizards still owe Hughes nearly $10million over the next two seasons, and despite the high price tag for a tenuous spot in the rotation, Grunfeld said yesterday he is not shopping Hughes for a trade.

The Wizards also have a rough history with winners of the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, which Arenas won last season after nearly doubling both his scoring and assist output. Former Wizards/Bullets Don MacLean, Gheorghe Muresan and Ike Austin all won the honor at some point in their careers, and each of them never fulfilled the promise of that award, leaving the franchise in less than glamorous fashion.

But Grunfeld insists Arenas is anything but a second-tier player enjoying a brief glimmer of NBA success.

“He is someone we targeted right away,” Grunfeld said. “You put him with Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes, and that’s a backcourt that’s quite formidable.”

Blake and second-year player Juan Dixon, who had a strong showing during the recent summer league in Boston, also are fighting for guard minutes.

Grunfeld said the center position is not set for Haywood and that the position could be played for the foreseeable future by committee with Haywood, Jahidi White and Etan Thomas.

Crafting the Arenas offer required every bit of the Wizards’ available cap room and was helped by an increase in that cap for the 2003-04 season and the unexpected departure of guard Bryon Russell. As a result, Grunfeld said the reshaping of the Wizards for next season essentially is done. Picking up a veteran guard, perhaps a spot-up shooter, remains a possibility but likely only at a veteran minimum salary.


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