- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

MIAMI | So far this month, the Washington Wizards have won only three times, losing 12 games and two players to injury in the process.

But the Wizards finally got some good news this week: They will get DeShawn Stevenson back for Friday’s game in Philadelphia. The shooting guard’s return comes after he spent the first 15 games of January sidelined with a pinched nerve in his back.

The nine-year veteran had played with the injury - caused by a slipped disk, which was pinching the nerve and sending pain shooting up and down the back of his legs - since training camp. The problem clearly affected Stevenson’s game. After averaging 11.1 points the past three seasons, this year he has mustered just 6.9 points on 31.8 percent shooting, including 28.2 percent from 3-point range. Regarded as the team’s best defender, Stevenson also lacked the quickness and mobility to guard opponents.

On Dec. 31, the pain became too bad for Stevenson to continue playing, and an X-ray revealed the extent of the injury. He received two epidural shots during the next three weeks to reduce swelling and relieve pain.

After a week of rest, he began shooting and then practiced for the first time Tuesday. On Wednesday night, after a good shooting session before the Wizards’ game in Miami, Stevenson was encouraged.

“I’m ready to play Barack Obama one-on-one now,” he joked amid a string of successful 3-point attempts.

Stevenson then snagged an errant ball and zipped it over to teammate Darius Songaila, who knocked down a jumper. After making another 3-pointer, Stevenson said: “See? That’s what you’ll be seeing Friday night.”

For Stevenson, who had played in 280 consecutive games before the injury, watching from the sideline was painful.

“It sucks to be out and just seeing the guys’ faces after every loss and not being able to help them or go through it with them,” he said. “Just being out sucks. I don’t wish that on nobody.”

Stevenson said he has been told the condition will be an issue the rest of his career, but he hopes it will be more manageable with the proper rehab and treatment.

The Wizards hope Stevenson can return to being the reliable player they had seen the past two seasons. With the injury-depleted squad forced to rely heavily on young players, simply having another experienced mind should provide a boost.

“Much-needed,” forward Antawn Jamison said of Stevenson’s return. “For one, let’s hope and pray that he’s healthy because we know what DeShawn can do for us when he’s healthy. Defensively, he’s probably our best defender. Offensively, if he gets into a rhythm, he can really open up and create some opportunities for Caron [Butler] and myself.”

When asked about the prospects of having Stevenson back, interim coach Ed Tapscott said he was “delighted.” He praised Stevenson’s skills on offense and defense and as a communicator.

“If you’re not talking on the floor, you minimize your chances for success,” he said. “We’ve got too many guys who I think are afraid to speak, and maybe it’s because they’re not sure what to say. But like I said, that comes with experience, and having another experienced guy out there who knows what to do will help us a lot.”

Tapscott said he hadn’t decided on whether he would start Stevenson, but he expected to use him extensively.

“Bring him along slowly? No,” the coach said, laughing. “When he’s ready, he’s going to be in there - just because I need somebody else in there that can help me in all the ways we need help on the floor.”

Stevenson’s return certainly will be welcome, but as Butler pointed out, with four other players - guard Gilbert Arenas and centers Brendan Haywood, Etan Thomas and Andray Blatche - still out, his presence won’t solve everything.

“It’ll be good just to get some more experience out there, but we need a lot of help - a lot of help,” Butler said. “Hopefully, it will be enough to get a few wins and get us some momentum and help us feel whole again, but we’re a long way away.”

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