- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 28, 2003

The familiar phrase “youth will be served” accurately describes the Washington Wizards as they head into the 2003-04 NBA season. The Wizards just hope that doesn’t mean they will be served to the rest of the league, starting with tonight’s opener in Chicago.

With seven players younger than 24, the Wizards will be one of the NBA’s most youthful teams this season. How young? So young that point guard Gilbert Arenas, signed away from Golden State with a $64million contract during the offseason, is regarded as a veteran leader at 21.

Although Arenas insists the team’s youth is a strong point, first-year coach Eddie Jordan knows babyfaced teams usually struggle.

“It’s tough for young teams to win when you have three, four or five guys who are your core guys and they are young like we are,” said Jordan, who spent the last four seasons as Byron Scott’s top assistant with the New Jersey Nets. “It’s tough, especially for us learning a new system, new defense, new terminology.”

In fact, almost everything about the Wizards is new — except their losing tradition. That must change gradually over the next six months, if indeed it is to change.

The biggest difference involves two men named Jordan. Michael filled seats at MCI Center and around the NBA during his final two years as a player but did nothing to effect a dramatic change in the team’s fortunes. And when the greatest player in NBA history reapplied for his old job as president of basketball operations, owner Abe Pollin opened the door and gave him a figurative boot through it.

Now the main man at courtside is Eddie Jordan, who watched the Nets win a couple of Eastern Conference titles before becoming the latest guy trying to jam the Wizards’ revolving coaching door as soon as Doug Collins vanished through it. Jordan’s front office counterpart as president of basketball operations is Ernie Grunfeld, a refugee from the Milwaukee Bucks who is regarded as a smart basketball man and tenacious team builder.

Obviously, considering the franchise’s nosedive since Washington reached the NBA Finals for the third time in five years in 1979, Grunfeld and Jordan are starting from the bottom. And with team leader Jerry Stackhouse out for at least five games following arthroscopic knee surgery, Jordan might have to do a lot of hand holding tonight at United Center.

Jordan sounds like he would be willing.

“Maybe the younger guys jump higher, they run a little faster and they’re a little quicker,” he conceded. “But intelligence sometimes takes over and neutralizes that. The experience, the know-how and how to play at a higher rate is what the younger guys don’t understand.”

Arenas, displaying a young man’s confidence and optimism, continues to see the Wizards’ glass as half full — or even better. When he was introduced to the media after climbing aboard, he boldly predicted Washington would make the playoffs. He refused to back down recently when confronted with the evidence of a 2-6 preseason record dotted with an ugly average of 21 turnovers a game, partly the result of the players trying to learn Jordan’s system.

“When you look at your team and you hear somebody say that you are going to be in last place, automatically my brain twitches, ‘No we’re not. Let me make sure we’re not,’” Arenas said. “Then when you look at our roster, we’ve got an athletic team.

“If everybody is healthy, you look at this team, and I don’t think a lot of teams are going to be able to match up with us,” Arenas continued. “When you have a team that no one can match up with, that’s dangerous. Once we get all of our pieces back we’re going to get on a roll. We’re going to make the playoffs.”

Perhaps we should check back with him for an update around, say, the holidays. Most objective prognosticators have picked the Wizards to finish at or near the bottom of the Atlantic Division.

Of course, it’s fine for hope to spring eternal — except that it doesn’t.

In addition to whatever assets Arenas brings as the NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player, the Wizards need a speedy return to form from Stackhouse, the team’s leading scorer last season (21.5).

Shooting guard Larry Hughes, 24, will be the oldest player in tonight’s starting lineup. Rookie Jarvis Hayes, who left the University of Georgia following his junior season, will start at small forward until Stackhouse returns. In the last three preseason games, Hayes averaged 17.1 points and 6.1 rebounds.

He will be joined in the frontcourt by center Brendan Haywood and Kwame Brown. Haywood is expected to be steady at center, playing a role similar to New Jersey’s Jason Collins.

Much more, however, will be asked from Brown, the top pick in the 2001 draft, who must improve significantly on his career averages of 6.2 points and 4.6 rebounds for the Wizards to get significantly better.

Big men Etan Thomas, Jahidi White, Christian Laettner and Jared Jeffries will get time in the rotation, as will backup perimeter players Steve Blake, Chris Whitney and Juan Dixon. Veteran Mitchell Butler, currently sidelined by knee tendinitis, likely will be used in emergency situations at both big guard and small forward when he returns from the injured list.

Last season the Wizards (37-45) were in the hunt for the final playoff spot until the last four games of the season. Arenas thinks the Wizards can and will do better than 37 wins this season. But he won’t deal with specifics.

“I don’t do numbers,” he said. “But whatever the playoff number is, that’s what I’m looking at.”

The Wizards can only pray that, come spring, it’s still in sight.

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