Andray Blatche can’t figure out why, but it always happens like this.
He’ll enter a game in relief for the Washington Wizards - and immediately be hit with jitters. They cause him to force things, play tentatively or operate with a lack of focus. The byproduct is an ill-advised shot attempt that ends in a terrible miss, a few turnovers or “ticky-tack fouls,” as he calls them.
Frustrated, Blatche winces in disgust, rips off his headband, tosses it along the baseline, at his team’s bench or even onto the scorer’s table before running back down the court. And just like that, something clicks, Blatche settles in and he makes a positive play or two.
“The headband is just my thing. I come out with it on, but whenever I take it off, that’s when you know it’s time for business,” he said. “But the headband, I don’t know what it is. I just come out with it on, and something goes wrong and I take it off - and that’s when I get more, you know, just more ‘grrrr.’ I need somebody to slap me before the game or something - I don’t know.”
Inconsistency has been the theme of Blatche’s career since the Wizards selected him 49th out of Connecticut’s South Kent Prep in 2005. And this year, whether it’s a headband toss or motivational methods cooked up by coach Flip Saunders, the Wizards are hoping this is Blatche’s year.
At 6-foot-11, with great size and a wide range of skills that enable him to play all three frontcourt positions, physical tools have never been the problem with Blatche. His veteran teammates - and this year Blatche himself - will tell you the problem is mental.
Eddie Jordan couldn’t get Blatche to turn the corner in his first three seasons, then Jordan was fired early last season. In his first game for interim coach Ed Tapscott, Blatche cranked out 25 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and he said a big reason for that was playing for a coach who had confidence in him and motivated him.
But Blatche’s ups and downs persisted the rest of the season even though he averaged 10.0 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Team president Ernie Grunfeld repeatedly points out that Blatche, 23, remains one of the youngest players on the team and would just now be entering the NBA had he gone to college. Having recognized he is working with a player with a fragile psyche, Saunders chose to employ thought-provoking lessons and visual teaching tools rather than a stern shape-up-or-ship-out approach.
The first day he saw Blatche after being hired in April, Saunders found the player in the practice gym and put him through a workout. He told Blatche he possessed the tools to become a great player, then outlined what steps needed to be taken for that to happen. Blatche - who has been out of shape much of his career - took the first step by spending the summer working on his conditioning.
Saunders praises Blatche as one of the bright spots of training camp but continues to challenge him to dig deeper. He also is working to help strengthen and mature the forward’s thought process.
“Just talking about consistency and intensity and not getting down on himself,” Saunders said. “I told him part of maturity, what happens is, you get into a fourth-quarter situation, maybe you’ve had a bad game, but the guys that are mature, the great players, they find a way to way to pick it up and make plays.”
In the Wizards’ preseason opener, Blatche came out looking like the player the team has seen the past four years: bad shooting (0-for-4) and two fouls in less than nine minutes. Then in the fourth quarter, he scored 11 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Rather than focusing on the slow start, Saunders drew encouragement from Blatche’s persistence.
“This is my first time having a relationship with a coach like this,” said Blatche, who had 17 points and nine rebounds Friday in the Wizards’ second preseason game. “I must admit, I like it. It makes me want to work harder and be a better player. He tells me so many things that, if I told them all, we’d be standing here all day. But the main thing is, ‘Just stay focused; continue to work hard.’ He lets me know hard work pays off. He continues to just give me confidence and boost me up.”
Skepticism may still surround Blatche, but the Wizards hope the light finally has been Flipped on.