- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

When the Washington Wizards open competition in the 2008 NBA Summer League on Monday in Las Vegas, the team will feature more than a couple of draft picks and a collection of team and NBA long shots.

The summer league squad this year is led by the Wizards’ young nucleus of fourth-year forward/center Andray Blatche, guards Nick Young and Dee Brown and forward Dominic McGuire - all entering their second NBA seasons - and their 2008 first-round draft pick, center JaVale McGee. Second-year forward Oleksiy Pecherov also made the trip out to Las Vegas but has been sidelined the last week with a sprained left ankle, and his status is uncertain.

Another six prospects - including 2006 second-round pick Vladimir Veremeenko, who has spent the last two years playing in Russia - round out the roster. But while team management will be evaluating those six prospects, the chief desire is to see growth out of the organization’s future.

“This is really for our young veterans,” Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld said. “It’s about them getting used to playing with one another and improving as we go along. We want to see how they match up against some of the younger players in the league. … After summer league is over, we’ll know exactly what kind of things we want to work on for the rest of the summer.”

Wizards officials described this summer as a crucial time in the development of that young veteran group, and they seem to have gotten that point across.

Blatche averaged a career-best 7.5 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks last season. In 15 games as a starter he averaged 11.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.93 blocks. Criticized at times in the last three seasons for having a subpar work ethic, Blatche said he has “turned into a gym rat this summer.”

He’s aware that most players entering their fourth NBA season don’t play summer league basketball but said he believed it was important to do so to continue his development.

“I want to go out there and get in better shape, become more of a presence in the paint,” Blatche said. “Last year one problem for me was conditioning. That’s why I struggled sometimes. So the best way for me to get in shape is play games, so that’s why I’m doing this. This way I’ll be ahead when the season starts.”

McGuire also has been working on his conditioning. Despite being used only sparingly last year, McGuire pleased Wizards coaches with his athleticism, hustle and defensive play. Believing he can carve out a niche for himself with that style of game, McGuire increased his conditioning - dropping from 235 pounds to 225.

“I wanted to get quicker this year so I can be that lock-down defender for us,” McGuire said.

The small forward, who averaged just 1.3 points a game last season, also worked on honing his midrange jumper so he can contribute more offensively.

Young, meanwhile had no problem contributing offensively when called upon. A smooth shooter and explosive dunker, he averaged 7.5 points in 15.4 minutes and had a career-high 27 points against the Lakers late last season. The knock against him, however, has been his soft defensive play and habit of struggling to remain in the offensive framework.

His focus this summer league will be to correct those two problems in particular.

“I want to be a better defender,” Young said. “That and learn the plays better. I’m getting there. I’m getting there. And I’m trying to be a veteran out there, lead a little bit.”

McGee and Brown will use the summer league to familiarize themselves with the Wizards’ system and their new teammates.

As the Wizards prepared to fly to Las Vegas for five games in seven days, the final goal all of the players mentioned was to win.

“I haven’t won more than two games out there,” Blatche said, chuckling.

Said McGuire: “I’m expecting for us to go out there and have a lot of fun and win games. We have a great team, a great point guard in Dee Brown, and I think we can go out there and push the tempo and win some games.”

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