- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2008

The Washington Wizards were admittedly relieved Sunday to get back to work at Verizon Center after a week spent promoting the NBA in Berlin and Barcelona.

The Wizards met all their obligations to the NBA by putting on clinics and making appearances, but they failed to put on a strong showing in either of their games against the New Orleans Hornets, falling 96-80 in Berlin and 102-80 in Barcelona.

Although the veterans didn’t log many minutes in either game for health or rest reasons, the Wizards displayed a disturbing trend of poor defense, giving up 36 first-quarter points in the first game and 32 points in the second.

Coach Eddie Jordan said he hopes his team - mainly his starters - will work on a more disciplined defensive approach in the next week and a half leading up to the Oct. 29 season opener and resume the improvement they showed earlier in the preseason.

“We want to get better defensively, obviously,” Jordan said. “The last two games to give up 36 points and [32] in the first quarters, I thought we played better defensively in the second half and with a certain group of people. So that was the emphasis. So we know who the culprits are: the starters. That’s no secret. So we’ve got to get better defense from our starters.”

Better health should help a bit. Forward Antawn Jamison, who led the team with a 10.6 rebounding average last season, missed the first game with a strained knee and played limited minutes in the Barcelona contest.

But the Wizards also must give better effort, Jordan said, both physically and mentally.

“We just have to play better, concentrate better and be more sincere about our defensive effort,” Jordan said. “And not only effort, but the execution of it, how to execute the pick-and-roll. Make sure the rotations are right. Don’t just play hard but play well. Play hard and smart.”

Another aspect figuring in the defensive struggles is the absence of center Brendan Haywood (wrist surgery), who often calls defensive matchups and adjustments.

The results from Haywood’s replacements have been mixed. Etan Thomas has been solid while working his way back into the flow after a year off with heart surgery. Andray Blatche leads the team with 10.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in the preseason but also has struggled, shooting just 33.8 percent from the field and not always showing enough effort, according to Jordan.

“We’re still trying to find that out,” Jordan said of Blatche’s ups and downs. “Hopefully, we have another week for him to be consistent at a high level. He’s too young to think, ‘This is just the preseason,’ and I don’t know that he’s thinking that. But sometimes he appears to be thinking it or he performs that way. But this is decision making time for the coaches. … But hopefully he isn’t thinking it’s just going to come Oct. 29.”

Pushing both players for minutes is rookie JaVale McGee, who started Friday and collected 15 points, two rebounds and two blocks. McGee is averaging 10.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 54 percent shooting and has impressed Jordan by proving himself a quick learner.

“I’m just enjoying playing,” McGee said. “I don’t really feel pressure. Just go out and do what I do. I’ve just got to keep working hard.”

The coach hasn’t settled on a starter for Wednesday’s preseason game in San Antonio but said giving McGee another nod is an “intriguing thought.”

Jordan notes that Thomas gives the Wizards a physical, veteran presence. And Blatche runs the floor well, passes well and has a good feel around the basket. But although both figure to have a better shot than McGee at starting during the season because of their experience, Jordan warns that neither should count out the younger man.

“Like I say, knock, knock - somebody’s at the door, guys,” Jordan said. “And the opportunity’s going to be there, and if it opens up, be careful. Because he’s progressing.”

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