- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 3, 2009

RICHMOND | Two-time All-Star Caron Butler, coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 20.8 points, is expected to be a key cog in the Wizards’ offense this season, even with the return of franchise point guard Gilbert Arenas.

When Butler reported to training camp at Virginia Commonwealth University this week, however, learning the offense wasn’t in his thoughts. That would come as he spent time with the playbook. Instead, Butler aimed to dedicate most of his efforts to “becoming the best defensive player I can be.”

Butler first thought of setting that goal just after the team’s dismal 2008-09 season had ended. Then in came coach Flip Saunders, who laid down the gauntlet for the 6-foot-7 small forward to become his top defensive stopper.

Butler accepted, but he knew he would have to make some mental adjustments. For three straight seasons he had led the Wizards in steals, and during the 2007-08 campaign he ranked fourth in the league with 2.2 a game. But he leaned on athleticism and natural instinct to stop opponents rather than focusing on the elements needed to be a standout defender.

“He’s relied a lot defensively to get steals on gambling a little bit,” Saunders said. “And I said to him, let’s be more a meat-and-potatoes type of defensive player, and so he’s taken that challenge and he’s put a lot of effort at the defensive end.”

That effort consists of spending more time studying the team’s defensive schemes, watching opposing players and learning techniques to best guard them. When the Wizards have scrimmaged this week, Butler has concentrated on his defensive assignments rather than trying to establish himself in the offense. Washington hasn’t played a game yet, but because of all the preparation, Butler already feels better equipped to stop opponents.

“In the past, I take the matchup because it’s given to me, but now I’m keying in, studying the matchup and learning the defensive schemes,” Butler said. “Because before, it was like, ‘You’ve got the weak side; you’ve got Kobe.’ And I’m like, ‘Where my help at?’ And it’s like, ‘You got him.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, all right.’ But now, I know where to push him, I know where my help’s coming from and I’m looking forward to it.”

In addition to studying, Butler set out to improve his conditioning. Three years ago, he changed his diet and lost weight, but he hung on to his addiction to Mountain Dew. In early April he gave up the soft drink entirely.

At the same time, he started making breakfast a priority. Butler said he never consistently ate breakfast in the past and instead focused on a big lunch and dinner. Now he generally starts the mornings with oatmeal, egg whites and turkey bacon.

Butler also went back to work in the gym after a brief break following the end of last season. He has lost 10 pounds, which he believes will improve his quickness and athleticism.

“I look at it like this: When you get a little older - I’m 29 now - you’ve gotta focus on your strength and agility, and the first thing to go sometimes is your legs and your speed a little bit,” Butler mused. “The lighter you are, the faster you move. I’m enhancing my endurance, my speed and agility and everything, so if I take off a couple pounds, how much faster am I gonna be? That’s key. You see a lot of guys doing it. I saw Kobe do it, and he’s running up and down, flying around the court at 31. It’s unbelievable.”

Butler isn’t worried about his offensive game dropping off, he said, because that comes naturally. An improved defensive focus, however, will elevate the Wizards to another level.

“I know I can score,” Butler said. “Now I just have to focus in on these things, and Flip gave me a challenge, saying, ‘I think you can be a great defender this year.’ So that’s a challenge we both put in front of me.”

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