Andray Blatche pounded his chest as he strutted off the practice court at training camp Wednesday evening, mean mugging and dripping with sweat.
“That’s one, that’s one, Dray,” shouted assistant coach Gene Banks from under one of the main baskets. “You’ve got one more!”
Banks was overseeing a heavyweight battle between Blatche and second-year bruiser Kevin Seraphin, and tried to persuade him to run it back for a best-of-three series. Blatche, unconvinced, waved a flippant hand in the direction of his coach before proclaiming, “I won. I just won. Gosh!”
It was surprising to see from a player who has reportedly stepped into a leadership role. To be fair to Blatche, however, he definitely got the better of Seraphin, and the scene described above was probably nothing more than an unflattering training camp snapshot. Surely, it can’t be indicative of his approach to the 2011-12 season; not when trainers, players and coaches are all singing the same tune — the big guy is poised to have a breakout season. And yet I wonder: are we still watching the Blatche of Christmas past?
Washington won’t be watching the Season of Andray Blatche, come Dec. 26. Make no mistake, Blatche is rebounding better and scoring more efficiently in the post, but this Wizards seems team knows better than to put their playoff aspirations in the hands of who ESPN’s John Hollinger calls a “jump-shooting big man miscast as go-to guy.” The team is bigger, tougher and, more importantly, smarter.
“It’s most definitely a different team than last year,” said Rashard Lewis. “Guys are working hard, I mean extremely hard. Even if we’re making mistakes, we’re making mistakes playing hard. We’re playing together — it’s not selfish basketball out on the court — and we’re playing defense.”
That’s right, defense — the area the Wizards have woefully underperformed as of recent memory. In a media session after camp on Wednesday, Flip Saunders said he’s been pleased with the contributions from the latest additions to the Wizards roster, particularly on the defensive side of the ball:
“The thing I’ve been impressed with some of our newer guys – (Chris) Singleton, (Jan) Vesely, (Ronny) Turiaf even – is their ability to contain people off the bounce and not give up penetration; so that’s been a key. We’re long, athletic, and have the ability to cover for mistakes at this point, but it’s still going to be a learning process.”
The team has made quick strides during this lockout-shortened preseason, said Saunders. The players are in relatively good shape, considering the circumstances, and continue to play with great energy and aggressiveness, two things often absent during last year’s uninspiring campaign.
Camp not only looks different this season, with players racing up and down the red, white and blue practice court at the Verizon Center, it also sounds different — it’s much louder. The coaching staff has stressed communication for weeks, a critical piece in a winning formula which has been enthusiastically supported by team’s veteran leaders.
“We are communicating better,” confirmed Saunders. “Roger (Mason) is a communicator, Ronny is an unbelievable communicator, even when he’s playing or not playing. Get one or two guys like that and it kind of becomes contagious.
“What’s happened is those guys have helped, like ‘Dray, who’s talking more than he ever has. JaVale is starting to talk, so it’s kind of becoming contagious. Everyone is starting to communicate with each other, which does make my job easier.”
Better communication brings teammates closer to together, which ultimately leads to better results on the court. Communication gives young players — particularly rookies — a sense of belonging, and accelerates their development.
Perhaps most encouraging, though, is that the Wizards appear to be playing with a unified goal: winning games. Together.
“We’re going to need everybody on this team,” said Lewis. “Everybody has to play their role. There’s no one guy that can take us to the playoffs. We have to do it as a team.”
Additional Training Camp Tidbits
- Quote of the day: “We’re going to play a lot of people (during our two preseason games vs. Philadelphia), just to see how some of our guys react to an environment where they can smell popcorn. Some guys, when they smell popcorn, they really can play. Some guys, when they smell popcorn, they think they’re at the movie theater. We hope that we’re going to get the guys that can really play.”
- John Wall earned another hardhat. Saunders said Wall was “phenomenal,” playing hard, efficiently and making every one of his teammates better.
- Not only did Andray Blatche come in behind the rest of his teammates during wind sprints, he didn’t even finish the set. So much for leading by example….
- A healthy Kevin Seraphin, who played for the French national team and the Euroleague’s Caja Laboral Vitoria over the summer, said he feels “like another player,” and should see plenty of minutes backing up JaVale McGee at center. His English has also improved greatly since last year.
- Flip Saunders’ take on Seraphin: “He’s been aggressive, but he’s been efficient. He’s very confident and thinks he can score down there in the block on people — which he has been doing.”
- Rashard Lewis on what it will take to be successful: “We have a lot of athletes on the team, and we’re getting in the passing lanes and getting our hands on a lot of balls. That’s going to create a lot of fast break points, and I think that’s going to be our best basketball: Get the ball to John (Wall) and run the floor with him.”
- While rookie guard Shelvin Mack has not shot particularly well during camp, Saunders is encouraged by the way he has run the offense.
- Jordan Crawford enjoys running into double-teams.
- After practice, JaVale McGee worked on his post game (!) … for a few minutes, before deciding that improving his mid-range jumper was a better use of time.
- Roger Mason, Jr. can’t miss, won’t miss, doesn’t even know how to miss.