As the Washington Wizards tip-off another season Wednesday night at home against the New Jersey Nets, they know the answers to a few key questions.
Gilbert Arenas’ thrice surgically repaired knee will keep him sidelined for at least the first month of the season. Starting center Brendan Haywood will miss up to six months because of a wrist surgery to his shooting hand. The All-Star tandem of Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler again will have to carry a heavy load for the team to succeed.
But there is one question that remains unanswered: Who will step up to deliver the career year needed to ease the sting of the early absences, to help this team get over that first-round playoff hurdle for the first time in four seasons?
Veterans Antonio Daniels, DeShawn Stevenson and center Etan Thomas will round out the starting lineup, but beyond that is somewhat of a mystery.
Second-year guard Nick Young is a capable scorer, but he still is growing on both ends of the floor. Fellow second-year player Dominic McGuire has greatly improved his game, but the small forward is more reliable for his defensive skills.
And so the logical choice for that wild card player, the piece to complete the puzzle, would seem to be fourth-year forward/center Andray Blatche, a 6-foot-11, 258-pound player capable of playing three positions. But the question is whether he now can do something the Wizards have been waiting for him to do for three - going on four - seasons now: grow up.
“Andray’s the wild card,” Jamison says. “We need him to be consistent. We need Andray this year more than we need anybody. We need him to bring energy night in and night out. And I’m not talking about four out of five games. Every night. There’s no reason Andray shouldn’t be averaging 14, 15 points game.”
The challenge was first issued soon after the Wizards suffered their season-ending loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs in May.
For the Wizards to take a step forward the following season, team management, the coaching staff and the veteran leaders all agreed they would need more from one of their most versatile - and inconsistent - players.
Blatche always had the tools, plus some. He could sky for rebounds and blocks, step out to the perimeter and knock down a 3-pointer, even bring the ball up the court in a pinch.
The problem was he hadn’t found a way to do so on a consistent basis. In 15 games as a starter because of injuries to teammates, he averaged 11.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.93 blocks. But in the other 67 games, he mustered just 6.7 points and 4.5 rebounds off the bench.
The diagnosis: Blatche needed to improve his focus and intensify his work ethic. If those things happened, the Wizards believed Blatche could give a team with three All-Stars yet another weapon, and maybe, just maybe, the Wizards finally would get over the first-round stumbling block that had snagged them three straight seasons.
Blatche heard the challenges and during the summer “turned into a gym rat,” doing everything he could to improve his game. He even led the Wizards’ summer league team - normally designated for rookies, second-year players and free agent hopefuls - to Las Vegas, believing the extra action would give him a head start.
Coach Eddie Jordan appreciated the extra work, and team captains Jamison and Butler took note, but as the team headed to training camp, they continued to challenge Blatche, prodding him for more.
As the months leading up to the season unfolded - Arenas and Haywood underwent surgery, and Jamison missed a week with a strained knee - the Wizards’ need for Blatche only increased.
Playing without Arenas wasn’t unfamiliar territory - the Wizards overcame his absence to reach the playoffs last season. But a larger contribution from Blatche would go a long way toward easing the sting of yet another setback.
And then on the next to last day of training camp, Haywood suffered a torn ligament in his right wrist and had to have surgery. Haywood will miss up to six months recovering, and the Wizards’ options at center are Thomas, who missed all of last season while recovering from heart surgery; rookie JaVale McGee, who is still learning the pro game; and Blatche.
But as the Wizards approach the season opener tonight against the New Jersey Nets, the question remains: Can Blatche deliver?
He put in a strong training camp, then endured a roller coaster preseason that featured double-digit scoring and solid efforts on the boards one night and paltry numbers and weak commitment defensively the next.
“He hasn’t shown us that he can produce at a high level yet,” Jordan said. “At times he shows flashes of being really good, and at times he doesn’t show a lot. We’re not sure why. We’re still trying to figure that out. He’s certainly getting the minutes.”
Jordan says Blatche hasn’t distinguished himself from a group of young, talented but still developing players, all of whom are struggling for the consistency that would allow him to feel comfortable turning to them in crunch time.
Blatche says he’s not discouraged by the ever-present doubt.
“I know I have to step up. Everybody keeps telling me I have to step up, and it’s true,” he said. “So it doesn’t get old or annoying. I know I have a job to do and that they’re counting on me.
“There’s no pressure,” he added. “I’ve worked hard all summer. There’s no pressure at all. I’m going into my fourth year. I didn’t have to go to summer league. But I did it to get better. So I’m ready. I’m expecting to burst out and bring it every night and be consistent.”
Starting tonight, the Wizards will begin to get their answer about Blatche.
“We’ve said all preseason that this is the guy we need to be successful. Come Wednesday we’ll see,” Jamison said. “I have confidence in him that he can get it done, and now it’s upon him to get it done and prove the naysayers wrong. Because there are a lot of people that have been in his ear. So we’ll see if now that his feet are to the fire if he’ll light it up and get it done.”