Arenas has Wizards' wand

With Hughes gone, guard looks to grow his game - on defense, too

Pro Basketball


WASHINGTON -- When the Washington Wizards signed Gilbert Arenas to a six-year, $64 million contract during the summer of 2003, many thought that newly arrived general manager Ernie Grunfeld had overpaid - badly - for his first major acquisition.

In two seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Arenas had gone from being a little-used rookie to the NBA's Most Improved Player, but his flakiness had been an issue at times. Even when he chose between signing with the Wizards and Los Angeles Clippers that summer, Arenas said his decision came after flipping a coin.

As the Wizards embark on the 2005-06 season, beginning with tonight's game in Toronto against the Raptors, the growth of the franchise from a perennial doormat to a second-round playoff team last season has mirrored the maturity of its 23-year-old point guard.

Although Arenas still acts sometimes like a goofy teenager - who else tosses away his jersey after every home game? - he has emerged as one of the NBA's best offensive players. And few are questioning Grunfeld for making the kind of financial commitment he did to Arenas.

"There are some of the same people who now think we underpaid him," Grunfeld joked last season.

After finishing seventh in the league in scoring last season at 25.5 points a game, and carrying the Wizards at times with scoring binges rivaling those of any player in the league, Arenas also will be looked on this season to provide leadership and defense for one of the up-and-coming teams in the improved Eastern Conference.

With backcourt mate Larry Hughes gone to Cleveland through free agency, Arenas is now considered option No. 1 - and maybe even No. 2 - in coach Eddie Jordan's offense. But as dynamic a scorer as Arenas has become, he still has a lot of improvement to make in other areas, defense in particular.

"The team is going to go as far as Gilbert drives us," team captain Antawn Jamison said recently. "You can only do so much offensively. I've talked to Gil and told him, `You've got to be a better passer, as a leader you've got to get your team involved, and defensively you've got to set a tone.' He's a household name already. For him to be among the top 10, top five players in the league, he's got to do it at both ends of the court."

Though Arenas has kidded that Jordan and Grunfeld are going to "make" him play defense this season, he is the first to recognize his biggest flaw.

"In this league it's about growing up," said Arenas, who came into the NBA in 2001 as a second-round draft pick after his sophomore year at Arizona. "I'm going to take defense really serious this year, and if I start slacking off, I've got players who'll push me along."

Asked this week whether he's seen more of a commitment from Arenas on the defensive end during training camp and the exhibition season, Jordan said, "Frankly we saw it in the Chicago [playoff] series, we see it a lot more, but there are still some breakdowns, he's just going to get better."

Arenas, who was selected third-team All-NBA last season, said he spent the past summer watching tapes of nearly every Wizards game. He said he worked on correcting his defensive stance and his posture and, mostly, his concentration. Arenas acknowledges that Hughes, who led the league in steals per game, was often his savior when Arenas had a defensive lapse.

"We played off each other," said Arenas, who at 6 feet 3 and 210 pounds is big enough to defend at both guard positions depending on the matchups. "I had my spurts at times and I think I played pretty good defense against the Bulls [in the opening round of the playoffs]."

Not that Arenas didn't work on his offensive game over the summer, spending time launching thousands of jump shots and working to improve his other scoring skills.

"I usually watch how I can beat my defenders, what my defender is lacking and what is he scared of," said Arenas, who is equally adept at taking his man off the dribble as he is pulling up for a three. "I think I took a little bit more threes than I usually want to take. I'm not going to be sitting and taking jump shots this year."

If there was any disappointment last season, when Arenas and Jamison were selected as first-time All-Stars, it came when the Wizards were swept by the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals after knocking off the Bulls.

Not that Arenas played poorly, but Dwyane Wade demonstrated why he is considered the best young guard in the league. Wade, who is 11 days older than Arenas and was in his second year in the league, averaged 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists during the playoff series against the Wizards.

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