The Enigmatic Andray Blatche
Has Blatche turned the corner?
by Colin Powers
The much discussed crime and suspension of Gilbert Arenas catalyzed what many believed to be the destruction of a one-time contender in the nation’s capital. Injuries and a simple lack of performance had long eroded the Wizards place amongst the elite of the East, but nonetheless, their triumvirate of Arenas, Butler and Jamison were a fixture of NBA conversation, a respected combination despite their relative irrelevance since DeShawn was giving LeBron that ridiculous ‘you can’t see me’ act in the 2008 playoffs. Even though the Wiz sank lower and lower before Gilbert definitively closed the era, they were still always viewed as ‘underachievers,’ thus indicating we expected more from the squad — that there was still a good team there buried beneath the losses and drama.
Alas, this year’s plan for redemption was derailed by the early days of the New Year, when the punishment handed down from Commission Stern curtailed another season for Agent Zero. More importantly, however, the suspension and on-going struggles of the Wizards also precipitated the subsequent departures of Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. The moves were mostly understood at the time as salary camp dumps, a catharsis orchestrated by Ernie Grunfeld of the mess the same Ernie Grunfeld immersed the franchise in when he overcommitted to Arenas and Jamison. That said, beyond the financial benefits of the deals, the migration of 2 of the big 3 to finer shores has paradoxically actually improved the product the Wiz have been putting out on the floor. Some of the parts they got back are usable (Thornton and the injured Josh Howard), but more importantly, the extra court time made available without Gilbert, Caron, or Antawn has allowed for some of the pre-existing Wizards to emerge and give testament to what up until now has been merely latent ability. Randy Foye has again found his touch and confidence as a dynamic late-game closer, but the biggest beneficiary has undoubtedly been Andray Blatche, who has been nothing short of a dominant offensive force since the deadline trades.
Blatche, the Syracuse native still only 23 years old, has had a career defined by the dichotomy of incredible brilliance and debilitating immaturity. The already difficult transition from High School to the El was made far more challenging when Blatche was shot in the September prior to his rookie season. The impact of the trauma on his physical, but perhaps more importantly his emotional development, is impossible to quantify. Nonetheless, once Blatche did get back on the court, consistency became the keyword in any discussion of him. For a few games each season, Blatche would unleash his full arsenal and back up the frequent whispers of teammates and coaches that he could be one of the best players in the League if he would truly commit to his profession. At 6-11 and approximately 250 pounds, Blatche had the body, natural athleticism and diverse skill-set that put him in the rare class of players who genuinely have no ceiling. Even as recent as last night, Coach Flip Saunders did not back away from a comparison that paired Blatche’s ability with Saunders’ former disciple, Kevin Garnett.
Why Blatche is not a household name in this his fourth season in the District of Columbia is that he had not up to this point shown the diligence, focus and work-ethic that defines all the top-dogs. In years past, he might put together two or three good games in a row before mailing in the 4th, all the while regarding the defensive end of the court with what might politely be called indifference. Blatche might follow a beautiful drop-step dunk with over-dribbling and a turnover. He has also acted with immaturity away from basketball at times, leaving us to wondering if this was another case of a kid getting lost in a man’s world, given too much too soon. Then again, this kind of capricious behavior is not atypical of most people his age, but because he is subject to the intense scrutiny and material rewards intrinsic to modern professional athletics, we expect more and constantly feel let down by Blatche. If the past few weeks give any indication, however, that perspective may now be in need of a fundamental adjustment.
The reason for the media questions and Coach Saunders’ timely association of Blatche with the artist formerly known as the kid who changed the game (that would be KG for those who don’t remember the SI cover) is that Blatche has been on an absolute tear. Since the All-Star break, Blatche has averaged 27 points, 11.6 boards, 1.8 blocks and 1.4 steals, and the team is 4-3 with Jamison happily of the King’s Court. This is the most prolonged stretch of dominance for Blatche in his young career, and his possible ascension to the elite of the League could mean the Wizards are not the lifeless carcass we have been led to believe. Indeed, we could be on the precipice of something very, very big. The kind of numbers he is putting up since being afforded the opportunity are up there with the best of the best, with the potential for an even further step forward as his body and conditioning acclimate to the rigors of 35+ minutes a night.
For the first time, Blatche is seeing consistent touches as the featured, go-to-guy for this young squad in Barack’s town. He has responded to the pressure and responsibility very well, taking the opportunity to prove that his days of meteoric play, stunning flashes followed just as quickly by disappearance, are over; he’s ready to become a star. Maybe all he needed was the trust of his coach and team and the confidence that comes with knowing he’ll be one of the focal points night in and night out. If so, the new Andray Blatche may prove to be one of the biggest acquisitions of the 2010 trade deadline. Armed with a number of young assets, a potentially dominant interior presence, and enviable financial flexibility, the Wiz could be on the rebound a lot sooner than expected.