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RICHMOND, Va. – Back in the summer, Gilbert Arenas(notes) had rediscovered his old game as these young, earnest NBA guards begged for him to unleash his old act, too. The shots were dropping out of the sky inside a Chicago gymnasium and witnesses watched the uninitiated players desperate for the full treatment.
They barked “Agent Zero” and “Hibachi” and wanted to see the cartoon character come alive. Only, Arenas refused to play the part anymore.
Three knee surgeries limited Gilbert Arenas to playing only 15 games the past two seasons.
“Just straight Gil,” Tim Grover remembered Arenas telling them in his gym.
Perhaps Arenas is too sheepish to bring all that back until his greatness, until his knee, has shown staying power again. Through training camp and one preseason game, through word and deed, this has been the calculated presence of a man with an impulsive past. Three years ago, Arenas never stopped shooting and never stopped talking. An improbable rise out of nowhere had elevated on the precision of a peerless jump shot and the power of a peculiar persona.
Around the Wizards, they can see that Arenas has changed. He’s still going to make everyone laugh, but no longer does everything seem to be a performance. The surgery on his left knee, the two lost seasons, have taken their toll and made Arenas reconsider and reevaluate it all.
After missing all but 15 regular-season games over the past two seasons, Arenas has honored his private promises of far more playmaking and far less promotion. He isn’t talking to reporters, nor blogging, nor twittering. He did his duty with a relatively clipped Q&A on media day, and the league office won’t threaten to fine him for his silence until the regular season.
Most importantly, in practices and during an impressive preseason debut on Tuesday night, Arenas has gone out of his way to think pass over shot, to think we over me. He’s indulged Caron Butler(notes) and Antawn Jamison(notes) with passes, pushing back any inclination to retake these Wizards with the blunt force of his jump shot.
“It’s definitely the right strategy to come back here,” Butler said.
To have returned to the Wizards as a shameless gunner could’ve had grave consequences in a locker room that’s healing rifts of the past two seasons. Arenas scored nearly 28 points a night between 2004 and ’07, but chasing scoring titles has supposedly been scratched off his agenda.
Arenas promised this tact to Butler over the summer when Butler traveled to Chicago to watch him work out with Grover. Yes, the climate had changed with Arenas out of sight, out of mind. His two co-stars, Butler and Jamison, cemented themselves as locker-room leaders. They had to live through a putrid 19-victory season a year ago, babysitting too many immature kids on the roster. Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld made a deal for Mike Miller(notes) and Randy Foye(notes). He signed Fabricio Oberto(notes). This is a good team that has a chance to be trouble in the playoffs with an Arenas revival.
“The best talent we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Butler said.
Arenas can tie it all together, and yet, there’s destined to be skepticism. Some suspect that he can’t help himself, and it won’t be long until he’s hogging the ball and the attention. In past years, the Wizards heard him promise to play defense and honor the coach’s playbook, and that mostly never happened. Yet now the front office and players are marveling over the state of his body and mind. They want to believe this preseason is prelude to permanent change.
“That's what I’ve seen, and the sense that I’m getting from him,” Butler insisted. Once, the Wizards had to fit around Arenas, and thus far he’s tried to fit around them. “He’s not forcing the issue,” Butler said. “He’s one of the best point guards in the game. His decision making has been great. … It shows a real sign of maturity and a great deal of leadership.”
Arenas had to try something. Time was slipping away. Across the past two years, his comeback tries ended with his body betraying him. Grover’s staff had tried to get him to spend a summer in Chicago, but Arenas had resisted. Finally, he texted Mike Procopio, a Grover assistant, and essentially said: It’s time to do this.
And yet there’s no magic to Grover’s formula. It demands immense work. That’s why Michael Jordan thrived with him and why Kobe and D-Wade do now. Those are the trainer’s three clients for the ages, the standards for everyone else. And he must admit: Arenas surprised him a little this summer. Grover knew he was a great scorer, but ultimately unsure he had the capacity for completeness. “I put Gil right up there with those guys, if not pretty damn close behind,” he said. “All the things he can do – and he showed – I never knew he had all that.”
That’s what always intrigued and infuriated the Wizards with Arenas: All along, they knew he had the ability to do it all – just seldom the inclination. It drove ex-coach Eddie Jordan crazy that his star had been too stubborn to commit to something beyond the endless arc of his devastating jump shot. Arenas had no problem getting to the rim against Memphis on Tuesday, blowing past the Grizzlies’ guards when he wanted. Before Arenas scored a point, he had seven assists.
New Wizards coach Flip Saunders thinks Gilbert Arenas is still capable of 40-point games.
When Butler failed to convert one of his snap passes for a layup and three-point play, Arenas chastised him with mock indignation over the miss. “That was an assist!” Arenas blurted.
As much as anything, it was one more way for Arenas to show the Wizards he’s trying to give them what they’ve always wanted, what they always believed was buried behind the cartoon character, Agent Zero. The shots promise to come again, and they still think he could give them 40-point nights when circumstances call upon him.
Yet, this is the most talent they’ve had in Washington in a long time. Miller and Foye arrived for a draft pick, guard Nick Young(notes) has been the surprise of camp, and Butler and Jamison are still All-Star talents. “He doesn’t have to do as much for us as he did before,” Grunfeld said. “But we still need Gilbert to be Gilbert.”
As much as anything, Washington no longer needs him to be Agent Zero. Once, Arenas felt invincible. He felt like no one and nothing could stop him. Well, his knee did and it nearly broke him.
It’s just October and maybe once the success returns to his life, Arenas will need to be outrageous again, to be the NBA’s Eddie Haskell. Maybe it’s just too against his DNA to show restraint, with shots or theatrics.
“He’s going to still be a showman on the floor, but I think his energy is going to be channeled differently,” Grover said.
So far, Arenas hasn’t promised something in public that he hasn’t practiced in private. Those young players in Chicago wanted Arenas to reach into a box, pull out that old persona, and it wasn’t lost on everyone else in the gym when he sheepishly declined. And that’s all the front office and his teammates have seen so far.
No more Agent Zero, no more Hibachi, no more tomfoolery. Everyone had a blast with it. For Arenas, it was the time of his life. But times change, teams evolve and eventually a franchise just needs something it can count on.
From an arduous summer in Chicago to training camp in Richmond, Arenas returns to Washington for basketball season. He has his $111 million contract, the deepest talent to ever surround him and a mandate to elevate everyone.
So far, his body is strong and his intentions sound. For now anyway, Agent Zero goes back into a box and out comes straight old Gil. That’s probably for the best, too. After all these years, the Washington Wizards don’t need a cartoon, they need a contender. Mostly now, they need the greatness of Gilbert Arenas.