- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Drew Gooden started to grow impatient in late February, when the NBA season grew five months old and he was left without a job. Basketball had been everything to him since growing up in suburban Oakland, and it had often been cruel; few players had changed teams over 12 seasons more frequently than Gooden, who at one point had been with eight different teams in nine years.

His tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks ended last summer, when he was released under the amnesty clause and essentially paid $13.4 million to go away. In January, he moved to Silver Spring, where he scanned the transaction wire daily and would see Shawne Williams join the Los Angeles Lakers and Jason Collins sign with the Brooklyn Nets.

“I saw how roster spots would fill up,” Gooden said. “Teams that really wanted to win were looking for specific players, and a lot of teams that were available were looking for stretch forwards. They thought I was a traditional power forward, so what’d I have to do? I had to reinvent myself.”

During his time in Milwaukee, Gooden was asked to fill a similar role, occasionally moving farther away from the basket as a 6-foot-10, 250-pound pseudo-swingman. The offense changed last season under first-year coach Larry Drew, and Gooden’s role changed as well: He played just 151 minutes over 16 games, phased out as the Bucks gave his minutes to younger players.

Gooden’s workouts, then, would have to change – not just from a basketball standpoint. He spent his mornings at L.A. Fitness, shopped at Whole Foods and incorporated Bikram yoga into his routine as often as four times a week. When it came to basketball, he attempted more jump shots, moving past the 20-foot threshold and beyond. Three-pointers, of which he had made 34 in his first nine seasons, were more frequent.

He didn’t have to go far when the Wizards approached him about a workout in February. And, when he signed a 10-day contract later that month, two days after starting center Nenê injured his left knee, he was ready.

Gooden, 32, has averaged 9.2 points and 5.6 rebounds over 19 games with the Wizards, who signed him for the remainder of the season after his second 10-day contract expired on March 18. He had 21 points in a 101-94 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on March 15, and a week later, he had 11 points and 11 rebounds in a 117-107 road win over the Los Angeles Lakers.

“He has something to prove,” Wizards point guard Andre Miller said. “Everybody on this team has something to prove.”

With the 37-year-old Miller, acquired via a trade with the Denver Nuggets at the deadline in late February, and the 34-year-old power forward Al Harrington, Gooden has helped provide a veteran backbone for a young team set to embark on its first playoff run in six years.

Gooden knew upon signing that the Wizards’ depth was lacking, both in terms of scoring points and stopping opponents. He could see it on television, watching Washington’s games for the better part of the two months prior to his joining the team.

What he couldn’t tell was how the two young scorers, point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal, fared as leaders. Almost immediately, he learned the Wizards were in capable hands.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Gooden said. “This is why they’re being successful and winning. I’ve been on teams where I’ve been on the other end of things in a negative way, and it wasn’t such a successful season, but it’s a positive locker room, which is turning into a positive season for us. I’m grateful to be a part of this group.”

Randy Wittman, the Wizards’ coach, was struck by how well Gooden kept himself in shape, especially having not played in a game in 10 months.

He didn’t score in either of his first two games in early March, though he was active in his debut, grabbing six rebounds and committing four fouls in aMarch 1 road victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. Gooden has gradually settled in to an average of 18.8 minutes a game, topping out at nearly 25 minutes in a victory over the Atlanta Hawks on March 29, and has expanded his range on offense, knocking down six of his 16 three-point attempts.

“Now, obviously, he’s been here long enough, and been doing the conditioning to where he’s [in] mid-season type of form, so that was a big plus for us,” Wittman said. “Obviously, now, the situation where he’s a veteran guy that’s played in the playoffs, you can’t have too many of them.”

Nenê could return from a sprained MCL in his left knee as soon as Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Bobcats at Verizon Center. Eventually, that should push Trevor Booker, who has started all 21 games in Nenê’s absence, to the bench, and Gooden further down it.

Gooden doesn’t mind. After last season, he merely wanted to be playing basketball again. With the Wizards playing deep into April for the first time since 2008, he’ll have a few more chances to do so.

“I knew that if I had an opportunity to play, I’d be the same guy I was [in 2011-12], and maybe even better,” Gooden said. “I had time to really focus in, and what I’ve grown to learn is that I really have a passion for this game. I worked out every day, and every day I woke up, I was thinking about basketball.”

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