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Against all odds

Wizards' Blatche driving force behind winning streak

Posted: Tuesday November 20, 2007 4:50PM; Updated: Tuesday November 20, 2007 4:50PM
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After a gunshot almost ended his career before it started, Andray Blatche has become so important to the Wizards, they inked him to a five-year extension last summer.
After a gunshot almost ended his career before it started, Andray Blatche has become so important to the Wizards, they inked him to a five-year extension last summer.
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"When I first got shot I only felt the bullet in my wrist,'' says Andray Blatche, the Washington Wizards' 6-11 forward. "So I thought I was fine. So immediately what I did was, I took the shirt off and wrapped it around my wrist to stop the blood and tighten it up tight. I was real cool the whole time because it didn't really hurt much, because I thought it was just my wrist. But once I got to meet the ambulance at McDonald's, the cop got there first and he seen I got my shirt off and he seen blood come from my chest. And he was like, 'Did you get shot in your chest?' And I said, 'No, just my wrist.' And he said, 'No, you got shot in your chest.'

"And I looked down and it was right over my heart. So after that I thought it was something serious: I thought my whole career was over, I thought I was going to die. I thought everything was coming to an end.''

A story like this reminds me of how steep is the grade for so many potential NBA players. It is amazing to consider how much they overcome. I know a league executive who tells young people they have a better chance of winning the lottery than of making it to the NBA. So furious is the worldwide competition among players for the NBA's 450 jobs that if every little thing has to turn his way in order for a player to make it.

But then you meet someone like Blatche, now 21, who grew up in a single-family home in a frightening part of Syracuse, N.Y., who was lucky to survive the early morning of Sept. 25, 2005, a week before he was to make his debut at Wizards training camp.

"I lost some of the rotation in my wrist because when the bullet wounded me my fist was so tight,'' he says. "It still won't go back all the way where my fingers will be straight.''

He demonstrates by tilting back his wrist. He cannot straighten his fingers: They are permanently curled unless he flattens them with his other hand. But he swears it doesn't affect his shooting.

"The ball is circular so it doesn't really matter,'' he says. "I don't think it will ever get back to how it was before.''

The Wizards are counting on Blatche -- beginning his third NBA season but still their youngest player -- to complete their frontcourt rotation by replacing forward Etan Thomas, who may never return to the league after undergoing heart surgery this summer. His teammates see the makings of a star. Rivals notice the same potential, though their assessments are blended with skepticism. "With his size and skill level, he certainly has the upside to be a very good player in this league. Possibly even an All-Star,'' says an advance scout who has studied the Wizards this season. "I think that is two to three years away, and only if he maintains a good work ethic. I have no idea what his work ethic is like, but watching him play I sometimes wonder. He's boom or bust to me.''

After their 0-5 start Blatche has helped drive the Wizards' current four-game winning streak. Over the last three games, in particular, he has managed an encouraging 7.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 22.3 minutes. His athleticism and feel for the game -- especially as a passer -- give Washington hope he can become his generation's version of Derrick McKey, who at his peak was one of the most valued players in the league. Another personnel scout in the Eastern Conference believes Blatche could ultimately become the next Rasheed Wallace: A tall, skilled perimeter shooter and playmaker.

"He still needs to understand focus and concentration every second he's on the floor,'' coach Eddie Jordan said. "He's got some good instincts on both ends ... We understand that he's not going to play like a seasoned vet. We're going to bide our time and give him some experience, and he's going to give us some things and he's going to make some mistakes. But hopefully the growth curve is shallow and he can get it right and be good fast.''

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