For Wizards' Hughes, comfort, points are up

Mixing guard duties, familiarity with Arenas help 6th-year player grow

Pro Basketball

November 29, 2003|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - When Larry Hughes was ejected near the end of the first half of last Saturday's game against the San Antonio Spurs, no one was more surprised than Gilbert Arenas, his Washington Wizards backcourt mate.

Hughes was thrown out for allegedly tossing a ball at an official after that referee had whistled him for a foul, and Arenas, who played with Hughes two years ago at Golden State, was dumbfounded.

"You usually don't see anything from him," said Arenas, who was placed on the injured list Tuesday with a severe abdominal strain. "He doesn't get mad about anything. That was my first time [seeing him get a technical], especially that way. He might say something smart under his breath and they give it to him, but other than that, I don't see him getting one."

Actually, there was one other person who was stunned by Hughes' ejection - Hughes himself. The 6-foot-5 guard plays like "Mr. Spock" in that he shows no emotion, good or bad.

"That's what I pride myself on," said Hughes, who had the winning basket in Tuesday's 81-80 win at Portland. "People say I don't get too emotional when things are going good. At the same time, I don't want to show anything when things are going bad. I try to stay even and play the game that way. It's not that I'm not fired up or that I'm not upset that something is not going right, but I try to keep it going both ways."

Right now, Hughes has got it going the right way, playing perhaps his best in a six-year NBA career. He is averaging 17.3 points a game, second to Arenas.

Hughes is shooting just slightly worse from three-point range (41.5 percent) than overall (41.9 percent). He has hit at least one three-pointer in all but three of Washington's 15 games and he has scored in double figures in each game.

Just as significantly, Hughes is putting those points up in a way that's efficient and, to match his nickname, "Smooth."

Hughes, who will turn 25 in January and is only the fifth-oldest player on Washington's roster, has an all-around game that stabilizes a team in dire need: Last year's leading scorer, Jerry Stackhouse, is not expected back from knee surgery until perhaps next month.

Because of his long, lean frame and his ability to handle the ball as well as shoot, people around the NBA have always viewed Hughes as a point guard possibility. In Philadelphia, Hughes was going to be the sidekick to Allen Iverson. That plan worked for a season and a half, when he was dealt to the Warriors in the middle of the 1999-2000 season, averaging around 10 points a game but only 1.5 assists.

Hughes averaged 16.5 points in his first full Golden State season and started 56 of 73 games in 2001-02, leading the Warriors in assists before he was benched for a hot-shot rookie named Gilbert Arenas.

When the Wizards signed Hughes as a free agent before the 2002-03 season, the plan was for him to run the offense, distributing the ball to Stackhouse and particularly Michael Jordan.

But Jordan lost faith in Hughes (12.8 ppg, 3.1 apg last year) and insisted that Tyronn Lue replace him as starter. When coach Doug Collins and Jordan were swept out last spring, Hughes made sure to let new coach Eddie Jordan know that while he was eager to play for him, he wasn't a pure point guard.

Eddie Jordan was receptive.

"He fits in with me," Eddie Jordan said. "I don't know what the other situations have been. A lot of guys bounce around and end up with very good careers. He certainly is one of our top guys and he's become a leader ... I trust him. He and Gilbert, who people may have said had a strained relationship in the past, they have a great relationship. They play off each other well at both ends of the floor, and there's good chemistry between those two."

Many thought that there would be friction between Hughes and Arenas, who signed a six-year, $66 million free-agent contract in August to come to Washington, considering how Hughes had fallen out of favor with Golden State, supposedly because of Arenas.

What outsiders didn't know was that Arenas and Hughes were friends in California, with the younger Arenas occasionally babysitting Hughes' children.

"There was nothing between us," Hughes said. "He wanted to play with me and he wondered why I wasn't playing and he wondered if they could do it to me, if they could do it to him also. It was one of those things where he saw what was going on, and he felt it wasn't right and I felt it wasn't right, but that's how this league goes. He got an opportunity to come here. He's still the same guy and I'm still the same guy. We're just in a different situation."

And in Eddie Jordan's system, the fact that Arenas and Hughes can slide in and out of either guard role at the drop of a hat has helped Hughes considerably.

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