- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

PORTLAND, Ore. — When the Washington Wizards signed Darius Songaila away from Chicago as a free agent two summers ago, they envisioned him as a versatile, veteran bench player with production similar to the 9.2 points and four rebounds he averaged his last season with the Bulls.

And after a slow start and setbacks over the last two seasons, the 6-foot-9, 248-pound Lithuanian is starting to deliver while helping the Wizards remain in the thick of the playoff race.

Back surgery forced Songaila to miss the first half of last season, and he didn’t find a rhythm until the playoffs, in which he averaged nearly 11 points in four games.

The production didn’t carry over into the first part of this season, however. Songaila mustered just 4.8 points and 2.8 rebounds in 17.2 minutes a game during the first three months of the season.

A sprained ankle and sore left Achilles tendon were partly to blame for the limited activity, but even after he healed, his minutes didn’t increase. Songaila took it in stride, telling himself complaining wouldn’t do any good. Instead he took inventory of what he could control and decided he needed to increase the intensity of his individual workouts.

I guess I just made the decision, Songaila said. I wasn’t playing a lot, and you can get lazy real easy. A team that’s doing pretty good and you’re not playing very much and practices towards the end of the season aren’t as intense, so I just did it to stay fresh, be ready.

And Songaila was ready when Wizards coach Eddie Jordan needed him last month when All-Star forward Caron Butler was out with a hip injury. In a Feb. 8 game at Denver, Songaila came off the bench to score 15 points and grab five rebounds. Two weeks later at Cleveland he scored a season-high 19 points to go with five rebounds.

Then on Feb. 29 against Chicago, Jordan moved Songaila into the starting lineup, hoping to receive more consistent play and better decision making. Songaila responded with 14 points, four assists and three rebounds.

Songaila averaged 9.8 points and 4.7 rebounds during a six-game stretch as a starter, and he has continued to produce even after Butler’s return March 13.

He is enjoying his best month in the last two years, averaging 8.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists while alternating between backup forward and center roles.

He gives us that veteran touch, Jordan said. He, Antawn [Jamison] and Caron have developed a real good vision for each other, cutting for each other, passing for each other. And that’s helped a lot. Darius now understands both positions, and that’s tough to learn, the forward positions and the center positions in the offense.

We knew he would be a really smart player, a guy who could pass, who could play multiple positions, a guy who could get his shot, who could get post-ups and be tough defensively. And that’s something that’s gone unnoticed, how tough he can be in the post defensively.

Jordan said leadership is another of Songaila’s contributions. He often serves as a floor general of sorts when paired on the floor with rookies Nick Young, Dominic McGuire, Oleksiy Pecherov and third-year center Andray Blatche, helping them with assignments and strategies.

When Pecherov joined the team from Ukraine this season, Songaila took him under his wing because the fifth-year veteran could speak his language and identified with his plight of adjusting to life in a new country.

He’s like an older brother for me right now, the 7-foot Pecherov said of Songaila. He just takes care of me in all kinds of ways — basketball, off the court, on the court — and I really appreciate him. He understands. He been in my situation. He came to United States by his self, and he said older guys helped him out. So he understands and makes it easy for me and knows my problems, what I feel like. And it’s great to have someone who can speak your language to help make it easier.

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