- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2008

Looks like the kids have gotten the message.

Rookies Nick Young and Dominic McGuire and 21-year-old Andray Blatche have made noticeable changes in their pregame preparation since Antawn Jamison and other veterans altered the locker room layout following a victory over Seattle on Sunday.

All three arrived earlier than usual before the Wizards’ loss to Houston on Tuesday, and all three are believed to have visited the weight room.

That was the intention of moving McGuire next to Jamison and Young next to Caron Butler (Blatche still lockers next to Brendan Haywood). It wasn’t meant to be a slap on the wrists. Rather, it was a message to players who perhaps have yet to grasp what is going on around them.

Their maturation will be key for the Wizards (17-16), who have been down two starters (Etan Thomas and Gilbert Arenas) for most of the season. Entering tonight’s game, the Wizards are atop a group of five teams — including the Atlanta Hawks, tonight’s opponents — separated by just half a game in the Eastern Conference standings.

In fourth place, the Wizards are 12 games behind first-place Boston. Seventh-place Atlanta trails Washington by half a game in the standings.

With Thomas (heart surgery) gone for the season and Arenas pushing back his earliest possible return from knee surgery to mid-March, the Wizards need the young players to be ready to play at all times, no exceptions or excuses.

“We have been taking it more seriously, getting up our shots and lifting weights. But this is something that we’ve just been doing for a couple of days,” McGuire said. “This is something we’ve got to keep going. This is our job, and we have to take it more seriously.”

At first, it appeared the rookies and the 21-year-old Blatche (the team’s youngest player) were being singled out following a lackluster performance by the bench in a loss to Detroit. But Butler said that wasn’t the case.

“There’s a little bit more being made of the situation, but at the same time we need for those guys to be ready at all times,” said Butler, in his sixth year. “Some nights they may play 10 minutes or not get in the game, but we still need them prepared mentally to give us something night in and night out.

“I’m just trying to show them that if you come in the locker room or to the game lollygagging, sometimes your preparation dictates the outcome of how you are going to play that night. So just take a little bit more serious approach.”

Butler praised Young’s performance in the loss to Houston. Young scored 13 points off the bench, his most productive outing since he went for 15 in a loss at New Jersey on Dec. 28.

“He held the fort down there for a minute,” Butler said.

Young as they might be off the bench, age can’t be used as an excuse tonight in a big game against Division rival Atlanta. The Hawks have the youngest team in the Eastern Conference (average age 25 years, 193 days).

The Wizards and the Hawks meet for the third time this season, with each team winning on the other’s homecourt.

Years ago, the Wizards might have looked beyond tonight’s game to meetings with Boston tomorrow and Monday. But with Atlanta so close, the Wizards can’t take them for granted.

“We are not looking past Atlanta,” Wizards coach Eddie Jordan said. “We lost a tough one to Houston last game, and I didn’t think we played well. Atlanta beat us last time at home. They are a great divisional rival. We have to calm down and play our best game against Atlanta.”

Note — As of yesterday afternoon Jordan was unsure whether forward Darius Songaila would be with the team. Songaila had some dental work done yesterday, the nature of which was not explained.

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