Is Blatche Ready To Jump a Level?

A Daily Babble Production

It's autumn in Washington D.C., which has come to means the Wizards are banged up.  Gil Arenas will miss a significant early portion of the season.  Antawn Jamison has already missed time in the preseason, although he has returned.  Center Etan Thomas is back from a season-long absence due to a heart condition, but he'll be replaced on the injury report by fellow center Brendan Haywood, who will miss at least four to six months after wrist surgery.

Haywood had long been an anchor for a Washington defense that has needed all the help it could get, as evidenced by the excellent Mike Prada's analysis of on-off stats over at Bullets Forever.  The former Tar Heel also experienced his most productive statistical campaign in 2007-08, posting 10.6 points and 7.2 boards per game to go with 58.2 percent true shooting.  The guy isn't an All-Star by any means, but there is no doubt something to be said for his presence in D.C. (although Prada's analysis post focuses on how the Wiz are better prepared to deal with the loss of Haywood than they were in prior seasons thanks to a change in coaching philosophy).

Thomas is an experienced big body who can bang on the boards and should be able to get his share of garbage baskets.  But he has also been out a year, and what the team will get from him remains to be seen.  Draftee JaVale McGee will no doubt be thrown in the fire on occasion as a rookie this year as well.  But particularly intriguing is the case of another player almost sure to see a minutes rise in Haywood's absence, fourth-year frontcourt man Andray Blatche.

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The 22-year-old Blatche comes off the first complete season of his three-year career.  After playing in a total of 85 games over his first two campaigns, Blatche appeared in all 82 (including 15 starts) in 2007-08 and saw his minutes jump from 12.2 to 20.4 per game as the team spent a good portion of the year without either Thomas or forward Caron Butler in the lineup.  The youngster from South Kent Prep in Connecticut has a world of physical gifts, and there will once again be much expected of him in the season to come in Washington.

Blatche is 6-foot-11 and 248 pounds, and he has the quickness and the strength to moonlight at the four and the five.  He has a sizable wingspan and no shortage of leaping ability, both of which allow him to be effective on the defensive end, which is where the Wizards will particularly miss Haywood.  Blatche pulled down 5.2 boards and blocked 1.4 shots per game last season (9.1 and 2.5 per 36 minutes), and he did a good job of keeping opponents outside while playing the four.  Blatche held opposing power forwards to 52.8 percent effective field goal shooting, and they only took 35 percent of their shots against him from the interior.  The accuracy percentage could be a bit lower, but keeping there's some credit earned for keeping opposing forwards outside.

What Blatche will need to improve, however, is his defense at the center spot.  Blatche played less in the pivot than he did at the four, but he had his share of problems as the man in the middle.  Opposing centers took 61 percent of their shots against him from the interior, and they posted an eFG of 64.4 percent.  Blatche is going to have to toughen up down low in order to keep himself on the floor and help the Wiz move past the loss of Haywood.  He's put on some weight since entering the league as a string bean in 2005, but he still needs to get used to playing a bigger game in the middle.  He has the set of phsyical tools needed to be effective, but it's all about synthesing them now.

Blatche will also need to step up on the offensive end in 2008-09.  He posted 7.5 points per game last season (13.3 per 36 minutes), but he did so on a true shooting of just 51.2 percent.  He has seen his shooting efficacy rise with each passing season, but he'll have to make his mid-range game more effective in order to add another factor to the Wizards' offense.  If he continues to crash the glass but forces opponents to guard him all the time offensively while taking garbage baskets where he can get them, he will go a long way toward helping fill Haywood's void at that end.

As Prada mentions, Andray Blatche did emerge last season.  The forward played his biggest role yet and managed to avoid the off-court trouble that had plagued him prior to last season.  Now, it's about taking the next step toward helping the Wizards improve enough at both ends of the floor to help overcome a set of injuries once more.  

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