Backboard’s Shadow: Andray Blatche

Before the trade deadline, before the term starter was placed in front of his name and before Mike Wilbon said he was playing like the next Kevin Garnett, Andray Blatche was on notice as a literary subject for Backboard’s Shadow. (Not to toot my own horn.)  He’s always had the skill set to be a difference maker, but as Celtics broadcaster Mike Gorman stated Sunday night before Washington blew a winnable game in Boston, Blatche has the type of talent that’ll keep both teams in the game.  He takes bad shots; tends to loaf around the court and sulk when things aren’t going just so.  But since the all-star break, he’s been showcasing himself as a seriously skilled big man, one who’s certainly going to be in the Wizards future plans.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In a year that was supposed to be a healthy bounce back from last season’s embarrassing, injury riddled campaign, the Washington Wizards have been in the headlines this season for all the wrong reasons. A sketchy incident involving several firearms and immature inner-locker room quarrels cast a dark shadow over the franchise.  The aftermath was the franchise player’s season coming to an abrupt end and the other two mainstays getting shipped far, far away to teams that have an actual shot at playing meaningful basketball in the spring.

Blatche has decided in his fifth season at just 23 years old, that this was the time to breakout.

Throughout his career he’s shown brief indications of a prodigious gift.  He’s 6’ 11”  with outside touch, something that makes professional scouts drool.  A little over a week ago he scored a career high 36 points to go along with 15 rebounds against the New Jersey Nets.  A week before that he went on an offensive barrage versus the Timberwolves, netting 33 points with 13 boards .  In between those two notable performances was 26 points and 18 rebounds in an overtime loss to the Knicks.  In that game he let it all pour out.  51 minutes of hustle when the next highest contributor was Randy Foye who logged 40 minutes.  It was the type of performance an all-star gives his team on a nightly basis and is indicative of what Blatche is capable of.

Since replacing Jamison and Haywood as a centerpiece in Washington’s front court, Blatche has been sublime.  Upon returning from the all-star break, he’s started in all 10 games on the schedule, averaging 24 points, just over 10 rebounds and three assists per game.  Not only is his 18-footer gaining respect around the league, but his entire offensive game is on the cusp of something special.  He’s so young and so talented with skills and dimensions that could have him replacing Arenas as Washington’s go-to scorer (should the franchise man return next year).  It seems like nothing can stop him.  Nothing, except of course, but himself.

Before this season began, Blatche embodied a major reason why the NBA changed its high school entry rules for the draft.  The Kwame Browns, the Eddy Currys, the Jonathan Benders of the basketball world were bogging down the overall level of play with immaturity and unfulfilled promise.  They lacked fundamentals, they lacked any sort of on-court IQ and they lacked a responsibility to perform for the franchises signing the million dollar checks.

As a 21-year-old, three-year veteran, Blatche was a thoughtless millionaire.  Right after signing his contract extension, he tried to solicit sex from an undercover police officer. He was later arrested on June 4, 2008 in Virginia on charges of reckless driving and driving on a suspended license for the third time.

After a heartbreaking loss in Boston on Sunday night that saw Washington helplessly watch the Celtics go on a 20-4 run to close out the game, Flip Saunders called out Blatche for jawing back and forth with Kevin Garnett in the fourth quarter.  Blatche ended up with 23 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and performed at a nearly unguardable level for long stretches throughout, but it was his waking of a sleeping giant and the casual, unconcerned post-game explanation that make him such a puzzling player.

He has the physical tools to be LaMarcus Aldridge with court vision, but his drive to succeed and his need to dominate are too blasé.  It’s what’s in between his ears that could either hold him back or push him towards excellence and a max contract in a few years.   It’s one of the more intriguing plot lines basketball fans in D.C. have to follow now that the Wizards are officially starting from scratch.

Seth Carstens