Monday, October 10, 2005

RICHMOND — When the Washington Wizards were negotiating with Larry Hughes last season, maybe they should have talked to Gilbert Arenas.

A close friend of Hughes’ since their playing days in Golden State, Arenas had some information for his bosses.

“He was getting ready to buy a new house here,” Arenas said — an indication of how confident Hughes was that he would get a new, long-term deal in Washington. “But the one thing he was telling me the whole season was, ‘I’m not a restricted free agent and I don’t want to be treated like one.’

“His mindset was, ‘If you want me here, show me. I don’t want to play games and go back and forth. If somebody shows me interest, I’m leaving.’ And that’s how he looked at it.”

Hughes, who spent three seasons with the Wizards, returns to MCI Center for the first time tonight as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the preseason opener for both teams.

The Wizards’ first offer to Hughes was for six years and $54million. But it didn’t take Cleveland — which had nearly $30million to offer players at the beginning of the free agency period — long to knock Hughes off his feet with a five-year deal worth nearly $70million.

The Wizards’ final offer six years and $72million — richer than the six-year, $64million deal All-Star Arenas signed with the team — wasn’t good enough for Hughes.

Hughes does not feel he will be showered in boos, something former Wizards such as Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard received in their returns to MCI Center, and he is probably right.

“I just went about my business,” Hughes said. “There will be some fans who were disappointed I left and show it in a negative way. I know for the most part, I did well.”

Hughes averaged 22.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists last season — all career highs — and helped lead the Wizards to their first playoff appearance since 1998. He also led the league in steals (2.89) and was named to the All-Defensive first team.

None of his former Washington teammates will talk negatively about Hughes.

But Antawn Jamison doesn’t buy the perception that the Wizards will not be as good without him.

“I wouldn’t say that we are not as good, but we are not the same team,” Jamison said. “Larry brought a lot and we had an identity. Now you look at that one guy being gone and you wonder, ‘what’s your identity now?’

“I could see if Larry would have left and we never acquired Caron [Butler], Antonio [Daniels] and Chucky [Atkins]. You could see us as not being as good as we were last year. But I think we’re deeper and more physical than we were last year.”

Note — Wizards rookie Andray Blatche, who is recovering from gunshot wounds to his left chest and right forearm, said he would be ready to practice in “the next three weeks.”

The Wizards have not confirmed that Blatche, 19, selected with the 49th overall pick in the draft, will be ready that soon.

Blatche was shot in Alexandria in an attempted carjacking early on the morning of Sept.25.

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