Bullets Fever

A blog and community website for the Washington Wizards and their fans.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

5 Things To Watch in Training Camp

In honor of the beginning of Wizards training camp (kicking off with Gilbert Arenas' amusing comments), here are a few things that Bullets Fever thinks you should keep an eye on as a Wizards fan.

1. The shooting guard situation

The Wizards, barring injury, have 4/5 of their starting lineup set. Gilbert Arenas will start at point guard, Caron Butler will start at one wing spot, Antwan Jamison will start at the 4, and Brendan Haywood, for better or for worse, will start at center. The one spot that is unresolved right now is at shooting guard. Last season, Butler was the starting shooting guard and Jared Jeffries started as a glorified small forward. Now that Jeffries is with the Knicks, there is an opening next to Butler, who seems likely to slide from the 2 to the 3.

It appears at this point that the battle will be between holdover Jarvis Hayes and newcomer DeShaun Stevenson. Stevenson started all 82 games for Orlando last year and gives the Wizards a strong wing defender and a much more versatile shooting guard than they had last year. But don't count out Hayes, who was given the starting job over Butler last year before hurting his knee. All indications are that he's all the way back and is having no problems with his surgically repaired knee. This should be a battle throughout the end of camp.

My early prediction is that Stevenson will win the job. His perimeter defense will be essential in stopping guys like Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, and Vince Carter. While he is limited offensively, scoring should not be a problem with Arenas, Jamison, and Butler in tow. I see Stevenson being a Trenton Hassell or Quinton Ross-type player this season. Hayes will ultimately be an extremely important player off the bench, and in my opinion, it suits him well. The Wizards struggled with their depth last season, playing only 7 guys when the playoffs rolled around. In getting Hayes back, they are increasing their depth and scoring punch from their bench. When the Wizards need an offensive spark, they should turn to Hayes.

This situation should not be resolved for some time, but keep an eye on it. Fantasy owners should root for Hayes to get the job, but in my opinion, the Wizards will be better off with Stevenson in the starting lineup.

2. How will minutes be divided in the frontcourt?

It became evident in the playoff loss to the Cavaliers last season that the Wizards needed to increase their toughness up front. Over the offseason, the only thing the Wizards did in free agency to solve that problem was to sign Darius Songalia, who was recently profiled in the Post. Improvements, therefore, must come from within, and with Songalia, Jamison, Brendan Haywood, Michael Ruffin, Etan Thomas, and possibly Calvin Booth or non-roster invite Robert "Tractor" Traylor all in the mix, the division of minutes should be interesting.

It seems pretty obvious that Jamison and Haywood will start. From the looks of things, Songalia will be the first big man off the bench. He doesn't directly address the toughness issue, but is a very good fit in the Wizards' system and, at the very least, provides the Wizards with the frontcourt depth they really lacked last season. He should play a lot next to Jamison this season.

Beyond Songalia, it's anyone's guess what happens. The Wizards could really use a resurgence from Etan Thomas. Of all the players on the team, Thomas is the closest thing to the Wes Unseld/Ben Wallace-type junkyard dog. He has struggled to stay healthy and be productive since signing a big contract after the 2004 season, but he is completely healthy now and hopefully can become a key frontcourt reserve. In lieu of a Thomas resurgence, it appears the Wizards may once again have to rely on Michael Ruffin. Ruffin plays hard, but is undersized and is not much of a defensive presence. For the Wizards sake, they better hope that Thomas can come back and play meaningful minutes this season.

3. Is the defense really improved?

The players seem to be saying all the right things now, but will we see a better defensive team this season? Signing Stevenson will upgrade the perimeter defense significantly. Jeffries was valuable for his versatility, but he struggled guarding the top perimeter scorers in the game. With Stevenson and Caron Butler, the Wizards have two tough perimeter defenders that will make things difficult for the top guards in the East.

Most people are looking to the frontcourt for defensive improvements, but Michael Wilbon says that improvement needs to start with the team's star, Gilbert Arenas. If Arenas is committed to raising his defensive game, the Wizards will follow him and become tougher and meaner. I had never really thought of it that way, but it's probably true. Arenas does need to become a better defender at the point position.

However, the interior defense is not simply going to become a top unit overnight just because Gilbert Arenas says so. Songalia says that he is going to bang and do the dirty work, but he averaged only 4 rebounds per game last year. Getting more out of Etan Thomas would be nice, but it's probably a bonus at this point. In the end, it has to be a group effort. Songalia needs to become a slightly better rebounder, Brendan Haywood needs to be more consistent, and Thomas needs to get back to the level he was at two years ago. If all three of those players have good training camps, I will be confident. Otherwise, we may see the same problems we saw in the playoffs last season.

4. The mentality

This training camp has a different feel to it already. Players have come out and said that the Wizards are serious about being an Eastern Conference contender. Arenas and Butler both underwent grueling training over the offseason, and both should be better players this year. Will this positive energy continue? My guess is that it will. This team seems more highly motivated than any Wizards team in history. Hopefully it will translate on the court.

5. Gilbert Arenas

Certainly, we should keep track of Arenas' post-practice interview sessions to see what he'll say, as he's already provided a few gems. Other than that, however, Arenas will be a key player in training camp. He is the leader of this team and supposidely is going to play with a chip on his shoulder. What is that ultimately going to mean? Will he simply try to stick it to the Blazers and Suns and work simply on his scoring, or will we see him becoming a more complete player this season? Is he committed to his defense and spreading the ball around? We all know Arenas can score with the best players in the league, but is this the year he really becomes an all-around star like Kobe or Wade? So far, it seems like it will be, but you never know with Gilbert. This will certainly be something to keep an eye on all season.

Who wins the starting shooting guard spot? Who should see the majority of the minutes there?

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