- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 13, 2009

Four months after the Washington Wizards began regrouping from their injury-plagued 19-63 season, team president Ernie Grunfeld introduced the final piece he expects will help them again be a contender in the Eastern Conference.

Three weeks after he verbally agreed to join the Wizards, free agent center Fabricio Oberto made it official Tuesday, signing a one-year contract worth $1.99 million. And on Wednesday he made clear his intentions to do whatever it takes to help his team return to the playoffs, where it was a fixture for four straight seasons before last year’s debacle that tied the franchise’s worst record.

“The priority for me is to see the team win and to help the team with that, and that’s my only concern,” Oberto said. “If I have to play defense and not take a shot for 10 games, I’ll do it.”

The 6-foot-10 Oberto played professionally for 12 years in Europe before joining the San Antonio Spurs four seasons ago as a 30-year-old rookie. Oberto helped the Spurs win the 2007 NBA title but became expendable after battling injury and averaging just 2.6 points and 2.6 rebounds in 54 games last season. The Spurs traded him in June to Milwaukee, which promptly sent him to Detroit. The Pistons released him a week later.

The Wizards were in the market for a veteran big man after they traded away centers Etan Thomas, Oleksiy Pecherov and forward Darius Songaila. At the time, the only centers on the roster were veteran Brendan Haywood and JaVale McGee.

“After the trade, everyone was saying we were a little guard heavy and thin up front,” Wizards coach Flip Saunders said. “From day one, even before we did it, we knew we wanted to bring in another big guy, and [Oberto] was at the top of the list. He has a very high basketball IQ. The things we like to do both offensively and defensively, he’ll be able to help us.”

And it turned out Oberto was just as interested in joining the Wizards as they were in acquiring him.

“When the trade [and release] happened, the first moment I heard Washington was interested in me, I was honored for that,” Oberto said. “It’s a new era for me. I need every day to work hard and show what I can do and help the team.”

Washington now has a 14-man roster of versatile players. Arenas, Randy Foye, Mike James and Javaris Crittenton are point guards who can play shooting guard. DeShawn Stevenson, Nick Young, Mike Miller and Caron Butler can play shooting guard or small forward. Power forward Antawn Jamison has filled in at small forward. Dominic McGuire primarily spells Butler but is more of a natural power forward. Andray Blatche is 6-foot-10 and can play any of the three post positions, and Oberto is expected to see time at both center and power forward.

Saunders, who was hired in April, called the 2009-10 version of the Wizards the “most unique roster” he has ever coached. And Grunfeld said this is the highest level of comfort he has had with a roster since he came to the Wizards in 2003.

“It’s as talented a roster we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Grunfeld said. “We have all of our positions covered. We’ve added a lot of outside shooting; we’ve added a lot of depth to our roster. Also, our young players are improving, and not only are we adding the three players that were hurt last year in Gilbert, Brendan and DeShawn, but we have three new veterans in Randy Foye, Mike Miller and now Oberto.”

Grunfeld said with 14 players under contract - one less than the league maximum - the Wizards likely are set for the upcoming season. He expects to extend invitations to two or three more players for the week of training camp, which begins in late September, but those players aren’t likely to earn a regular-season roster spot. And Grunfeld said unless a “really interesting” unexpected trade comes up, the Wizards won’t make any more tweaks to the roster.

• Mike Jones can be reached at mjones@washingtontimes.com.

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