Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Return of Da Wiz

He’s Baaaaaack – For those of you who didn’t get the memo (most of you probably missed the Wizards’ 81-62 rout of Cleveland in the first preseason game for both teams on Tuesday), Agent Zero is back. While he’s still treading lightly on that surgically repaired knee, Washington’s All-Star point guard made quite a statement in his return. With time winding down in the first half, Gil drove the ball up the court, pulled up just above the three-point line, and banked home a trey just as the buzzer sounded. That’s typical Arenas, something Wiz fans have grown accustomed to seeing time and time again. And it was certainly a welcome sign that Arenas is feeling more comfortable on his knee, and is ready to erase the bitter memory of last year’s injury-plagued playoff debacle. Sure he went 2-for-11 in the game in his limited action, but if there’s anything we know for sure, it’s that Gil is going to get his points and he’s going to have the ball in his hands in key situations.

Brendan B-Good – It sounds as though chronic under-achieving center Brendan Haywood and Eddie Jordan have finally resolved their differences – or at least that’s what they’re telling us. After Jordan benched him for the majority of last season’s first round sweep at the hands of the Cavs, Haywood stormed off the court before Game 4 had even concluded and ripped his nameplate off his locker. That appeared to be that. With multiple physical altercations between himself and teammate Etan Thomas in the recent past and a major rift between himself and the coach, Haywood was said to have demanded a trade.

Well, it’s a good thing that never happened. Everyone expected the Wiz to go big with their first-round draft choice last spring, but after taking a shooting guard and a small forward, they appeared to be stuck with the old Brendan/Etan terrible twosome yet again. Jordan traveled to Haywood’s home in Charlotte to meet with his disgruntled center and the two settled whatever it was that needed to be settled. Now, with Thomas out indefinitely following open heart surgery only a couple days ago, the Wizards will need Haywood to step up more than ever. The former Tar Heel helped UNC to an improbable 2000 Final Four run on the strength of his NCAA-leading field goal percentage. He has never been able to establish that kind of post scoring dominance in the NBA and his defense comes and goes. But with only the 6-foot-8 Darius Songaila and still raw third-year man Andray Blatche behind him, this is the year Haywood needs to step it up.

D-Mac Attack – I’m still not sold on Washington’s decision not to draft a big man in the 2007 draft. I’m also not sold on Nick Young, a flashy scorer from USC who seems to fit the DC pedigree only because he has never played a lick of defense in his hardwood career. But, anyone who saw Dominic McGuire play in college (they don’t televise many Fresno State games this side of…well…Fresno) or in the Wizards’ pre-season opener has to be excited to see him suit up this season. Seven points on 3-of-7 shooting, two blocks, a board and a steal in 17 minutes of action. Not too shabby.

McGuire (the 17th pick in the second round) brings all the things to the table that Young (selected 16th overall) lacks. Rebounding, an uncanny ability to elevate and block shots and aggressiveness on both ends of the floor. Oh yeah, he can score, too. But coming off the bench, the Wiz will be looking for the San Diego native to bring a spark on the defensive end that helps propel their transition offense. D-Mac (a nickname that good should make you even more excited to see him in action) will give Washington quality minutes this season backing up Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison and could be an X-factor in the Wizards push for their fourth consecutive playoff birth.

Who got the Freshy Pechy? – Don’t let Oleksiy Pecherov’s down-syndrome-esque appearance fool you. This Ukranian is ready to ball. I’ll be the first one to admit I’ve never been keen on Ernie Grunfield taking fliers on foreign players in the draft and letting them float around overseas until the Wiz have enough room/money to pay for their passage over to the NBA. In fact, I was livid when Washington drafted two Eastern Europeans two years ago. It’s not that I don’t think foreign players can make an impact on this team, I just prefer the philosophy of using first-round picks to fill the needs of the team now. If you want evidence of what I’m talking about, look no further than Juan Carlos Navarro – the Spanish star who the Wiz handed over to Memphis on a silver platter because they didn’t have the salary cap space to sign him. That, in my opinion, is a wasted draft selection.

Nevertheless, it looks like Pesh really has the tools to make him a solid role player coming off the bench. He needs to work on his conditioning and has to become more physical on the block to cement himself as a key contributor on this squad, but right now, the Wizards just need him to buy some minutes so their big guys can rest. And it won’t hurt if his silky touch from 12-18 feet allows him to knock down some jumpers. This kid will definitely have an impact this season and he’ll continue to develop as he gets adjusted to the NBA game. Maybe then we can do something about his hair.

Defense? We’re talking about Defense? – Yup, I said it. The “D-word.” Usually only muttered in frustration by fans watching opposing scorers slash through the Wizards’ ranks on the way to uncontested layups and dunks. But this season, Washington looks like they’ve finally realized that you can’t always outscore your opponent.

Eddie Jordan brought in Randy Ayers, whose pressure-defense helped Larry Brown’s Philly teams to five consecutive playoff appearances, including the 2001 NBA Finals. Ayers is the perfect guy to get the Wizards to put some effort in on the defensive end. His up-tempo style is perfectly suited for Washington’s speed in transition and if Tuesday night was any indicator, the Wizards should be able to create more turnovers and easy transition buckets if they stick to the game plan. Yes, both teams were dismal from the field as Jordan and Cleveland coach Mike Brown shuffled through bench players to see what they have to work with. But holding any team to 61 points and a .306 shooting percentage is a good sign that Ayers has his players focused and committed to improvement.

Check back in next week for a full preview of the 2007-2008 Washington Wizards

- The Tar Heel

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