- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Shortly after the 2005-06 season ended, Washington Wizards guard Jarvis Hayes got an invitation to spend time with teammate Antonio Daniels and his family near their lakeside home just outside of San Antonio.

A few months later, Daniels picked up the phone and called soon-to-be second-year players Andray Blatche and Donell Taylor in Las Vegas, where they were participating in a summer league, just to see how they were doing.

And most recently, Daniels joined Etan Thomas for lunch at the Jamaica House, the bustling hole-in-the-wall that does brisk business across the street from Siegel Center, the Wizards’ training camp headquarters in Richmond.

“The food was great, and Antonio is great company,” Thomas said.

Daniels, 31, acquired last summer, has emerged as the Wizards’ natural leader, someone the other players will listen to. He has become invaluable to coach Eddie Jordan, not just because he rebounded from a rocky start last season to become the team’s best player off the bench but because he works to unite teammates and fine-tune relationships.

“He is a leader. He’s a quarterback. It’s a natural thing for him,” Jordan said. “He’s won a championship. He’s got confidence and yet he’s humble. I don’t know where we would be without him. He runs the second team better than anybody we have, and he can play with the first team. It’s great to have him.”

Early last season it looked as if the Wizards might have made a mistake in signing the 6-foot-4 Daniels to a five-year, $30 million deal. But after struggling early on — when his place in the rotation wasn’t clearly defined — Daniels excelled late in the season, averaging 14.2 points and 4.4 assists in March and 13.7 points and 4.9 assists in April.

“Those last 40 or 50 games for me last year were big for me because that’s when I found my niche,” Daniels said. “The first quarter of the season was tough, being in and out and not really knowing what’s going on. But when you find your niche and what you can bring to the table and you know what guys look for you to do, it makes it that much easier.”

Thomas believes Daniels’ leadership traits are natural gifts.

“There are guys who have played in winning situations before, but they don’t know what it is to be a leader,” the center said.

What can’t be discounted is what Daniels learned as a young player in San Antonio, where he helped the Spurs to a championship and came off the bench to relieve players who since have assumed leadership roles after their playing days ended.

Avery Johnson is the coach of Western Conference champion Dallas. Mario Elie has been an assistant coach in San Antonio and Golden State. And Steve Kerr, who along with winning a championship in San Antonio won multiple titles in Chicago, has become a successful broadcaster.

“Watching those guys, you have to learn a lot,” Daniels said. “They knew how to communicate, and that in turn made us very close. It made guys feel comfortable.

“That’s why I try to do the things that I do because it helps to build chemistry,” continued Johnson, adding that he and reserve Michael Ruffin went out to dinner before every game last season. “When you are on a team, it’s an extension of your family. You spend as much time with these guys as you do with your family. So that’s why I talked to everybody on this team this summer, and that might be the first time I’ve done that since I played in San Antonio.”

Note — The Wizards cut rookie Kevin Pinkney yesterday. Pinkney, a 6-10 forward, was considered a long shot to make the final roster. Washington has 17 players in camp, meaning it has until Oct. 30 to cut two more players.

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