Washington Wizards franchise point guard Gilbert Arenas stepped on the court at Barry Farm Recreation Center for some streetball action Friday night, giving D.C. basketball fans their first look at him since he made a two-game cameo late last season.
But the Arenas who helped the Wizards upset the Cavaliers at Verizon Center as mainly an assist man on April 2 and the one who laced ‘em up at “The Farms” were two entirely different players. And the members of the standing-room-only crowd in Southeast Washington left the courts with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, this comeback might be the one that has been anticipated since Arenas’ left-knee blowout in April 2007, an injury that has required three surgeries.
Arenas’ level of competition must be taken into account: Although it was pretty exceptional, it wasn’t quite NBA caliber - maybe NBDL level. But the April ‘09 Arenas couldn’t have put on a display rivaling the Barry Farm performance.
Last spring, Arenas wore a bulky knee brace and shied away from the paint, instead settling for open jumpers while handing out 21 assists in two games. On Friday night, Arenas wore no knee brace, crossed over opponents, blew past them and often finished with either an explosive dunk or acrobatic layup. The jump shot went virtually unused - Arenas, who finished with 35 points and seven assists in his team’s 110-101 loss, took only two all game. (The sweet stroke from outside is still there, he insists. He simply wanted to put on the jitterbug, high-flying act that streetball fans love best.)
In April, Arenas got gimpy after extended stretches of play and had to retire to the bench to rest his sore knee. On Friday, Arenas played all 48 minutes and never displayed even the slightest bit of discomfort.
One of the common fears among Arenas fans in the two years since his initial surgery was that after three times under the knife, he might never regain the quickness and explosiveness that made him a three-time All-Star and enabled him to average 28.6 points from 2004 to 2007.
Arenas, to whom the Wizards awarded a six-year, $111 million contract even though he played just 13 games in 2007-08 (before his third surgery), always dispelled those myths. His argument was that his game consisted of sizzling shooting displays rather than high-flying attacks to the basket.
But soon after the Wizards hired Flip Saunders in April, Arenas let on that maybe even he had doubts about regaining his explosiveness, saying he expected in 2009-10 to turn into “more of a pure point guard,” directing the offense and setting up teammates rather than reprising his role as high-scoring assailant.
It appears he has since dispelled such thoughts. He has been in full attack mode as of late, averaging 44 points a game in a pro-am league in Chicago (according to Saunders, who visited Arenas two weeks ago) before dropping another 35 at Barry Farm.
Judging by his impressive display of dunks - a tomahawk here, two-handed jam there, a posterizing slam on an opponent and even a Karl Malone-style-pose breakaway dunk - it appears Arenas actually has added a new element to his game. It begs the question: Can Arenas actually be better than or at least equal to what he was pre-injury?
The answer won’t come until the Wizards are in the thick of their 2009-10 redemption campaign. Those close to Arenas, however, say that after the nearly two-month stint with former Michael Jordan trainer Tim Grover, Arenas’ left knee is finally back to 100 percent and the 26-year-old feels quicker, stronger and more explosive than he did before his injury.
Arenas has played daily in Chicago, but he must show that his knee can hold up under the rigors of an 82-game NBA schedule and he can put up prolific numbers against evenly matched talent before the “heeee’s baaaaack” proclamation can truly be made. But the early indications are that the Hibachi just might be fired up again at Verizon Center this season.