The Washington Wizards have exceeded their output from last year, but fallen well short of their preseason expectations. With all of their big names gone, the Wizards must now look to a new leader for the future. The future of the Washington Wizards rests with Andray Blatche. A month ago, that statement would have shocked even me. Blatche hadn't shown himself to be capable of being the centerpiece of a team, let alone a starter. But upon assuming the starting role from veteran Antawn Jamison, it was apparent that Blatche had finally come into his own. While he is still young, and still untested over the long haul of the NBA season, Blatche has shown a surprising efficiency on the floor without much veteran help around him. Contrary to popular belief, the Wizards are better moving forward without Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and Antawn Jamison. ESPN analysts John Hollinger and Chad Ford conducted a team by team ranking and assessed their futures based on their current players, the free agent pool, the draft, available money and management. The Wizards landed 29th on the list, with the Charlotte Bobcats bringing up the rear.
Hollinger and Ford have apparently stopped paying attention to the Wizards, because their future looks brighter now than it did earlier this season when Washington was projected to be a playoff team. If nothing else the season Washington has had thus far proves you cannot make such lofty projections about any team. The Wizards as a whole are far from perfect with their roster right now. Their leading statistical producers are all but gone, with only Gilbert Arenas still (technically) on the payroll. With Josh Howard done for the season, it is unlikely the team will exercise the option on his contract. Who can the Wizards turn to in their time of need? There is no definite answer to that question right now because the Wizards are still in the early stages of a rebuild. They have four picks in the draft, two in the first and two in the second, as well as some space under the cap. The only question mark is Arenas, who is set to be sentenced for felony gun charges on the 26th. No matter the outcome, the Wizards dug their own hole and it is going to take a lot of shoveling to dig their way back out. In the face of so much change in the middle of a season, it is easy to write off whatever successes or failures befall a team.
The Wizards have splite their last 10 games and 3-3 since trading Jamison. It says a lot about players when they can be traded and play .500 ball when they hardly know each other. The Wizards have shown more chemistry through six games than they had all season before the trade deadline. With all the roster turnover Washington has seen in the last few weeks, it would be understandable, if not already understood, that they'd be content to pack it in and try to get a better shot at the first overall pick in the draft. Blatche, along with Randy Foye, Al Thornton, Mike Miller, JaVale McGee, James Singleton, and Quinton Ross, beg to differ. Only McGee, Blatche and Thornton are contracted through next season. Miller and Singleton have expiring contracts, Ross has a player option, and Foye has a qualifying offer. This Wizards roster is playing for the future right now. Everything they do right now matters moving forward. It decides who stays, who goes, who the team targets in the draft and free agency. McGee and Thornton have to worry about the team looking to upgrade in the offseason, so they need this time to impress management enough to earn their minutes.
Blatche looks to be the safest player of the bunch and rightfully so. He has been with the team the longest. It says a lot about a player who had brought so much off the court baggage with him to finally emerge as the player he was drafted to be. Blatche, just a second round selection, had shown flashes of his potential in limited minutes, and showed development early this season in place of the injured Jamison. Now he's averaging around 24 points and 10 rebound since taking over the starting power forward spot. That's power forward, not center, which everyone seems to list him or discuss him as. Even though he has only been the starter for a handful of games, as consistent and surprising as his output has been, it is dangerous to put so many of the team's hopes on his shoulders. If it is affecting him, he hasn't shown it one bit. The most extraordinary part about Blatche's emergence is the efficiency he has shown therein. He has shot better than 50 percent as a starter, a number of which have been mid-range jump shots. He is also rebound especially well and pitching in a handful of assists in the process. His steady improvement each year he has been in the league is obvious in his statistics. His rookie year, he played in 29 games and averaged 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds per game. Compare that to the 58 games he has played in so far this season to go with his 11.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game.Constant improvement has been the name of Blatche's game, even if he has been inconsistent in his overall effort. However, Blatche's season totals do not tell the story of how huge he has shown up in Washington's last nine games. Over the nine game stretch Blatche has served as the Wizards' starting power forward, he has set career highs in points (36) and rebounds (18). Only in his last game against Milwaukee on March 5 did he score fewer than 18 points. A player who has often been considered a project now occupies the active leading scorer title for the Wizards after just nine games. That says something about
Blatche's character, which has fallen under question in the past. He is very deliberate in his game, and if a team gives him any room to shoot or drive, he does it. He is developing that killer instinct that all great players need. He has always had potential, but plenty of players with potential burn out before it is ever realized. At 23 years of age, Blatche shows no signs of burning out looking for his game. He has found it. It is impossible to say exactly what the future holds for the Wizards or Blatche. A clean slate could be the best thing for Blatche's career and Washington's endeavors moving forward.
Matthew Brown Matt is a student at the University of Maryland and is a featured writer for BleacherReport.com as well as WizardsExtreme.