The Wiz Whiz
A five-week scoring jag and a superb all-court game have elevated Washington's Gilbert Arenas into the sport's elite
GILBERT ARENAS. Say it one more time, with feeling. Gilbert Arenas. "It just doesn't flow, does it?" asks Arenas, the Wizards' All-Star guard. "I think I should change it. Look at some of those other names: Kobe Bryant. Tiger Woods. Anything with Michael in it. It's, like, if you have a name like that you're automatically a star. O.J. Mayo—the kid hasn't played one minute [in the NBA], but you already know he's going to be great."
This season Arenas, 25, in his sixth year out of Arizona, is close to becoming a household name. At week's end he was averaging a career-high 30.5 points (second in the league) while leading Washington to a 19--14 record, one game back in the Southeast Division. Such a scenario seemed highly implausible six weeks ago, when the Wizards were limping to a 4--9 start behind a struggling Arenas, who shot just 38.9% from the field in November. "He looked distracted," says Wizards coach Eddie Jordan. "He was still going to the basket, but he was looking [merely] to get fouled, not to get fouled and make the shot." The day after a particularly ragged loss to Chicago on Dec. 2 (in which he scored just 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting), Arenas was called in for a meeting with Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld. The two reviewed game film and talked about the opening month. "I think I was struggling because I finished last season playing at such a high level and I wanted to pick up where I left off," says Arenas. "Ernie sat me down and told me to relax, that I was actually playing better this season than I was at the same time last season." Says Grunfeld, "I thought he was frustrated. I just told him to go out there and be who you are."
The next night Arenas poured in 38 points against Dallas, kicking off a 17-game (and counting) stretch in which he averaged 35.4 points. During the run Arenas was a one-man highlight reel, with a 60-point explosion against the Lakers and a 54-point effort against the Suns. On Jan. 3 he dropped a turn-out-the-lights, 30-foot buzzer-beater to edge the Bucks. After Arenas's performance in Los Angeles (a 147--141 Wizards overtime win) he was accused by no less than Bryant of taking too many bad shots. (No one is sure who's the pot and who's the kettle in that discussion.) "How do you come back at a guy who has three rings?" says Arenas with a laugh. "You can't. But if you want to talk statistics, look at mine for the first six years and look at his. Mine blow his out of the water." For what it's worth, Bryant, who arrived in the NBA straight from Lower Merion High in Ardmore, Pa., averaged 19.8 points in his first six seasons; through Sunday, Arenas, who played two years at Arizona, had a career average of 22.5.
In a league in which shoot-first point guards are more reviled than revered (see: Marbury, Stephon), Arenas has been able to pile up gaudy numbers without losing the respect of his teammates, particularly his All-Star-caliber sidekicks, forwards Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. It helps that at week's end Arenas was averaging a career-best 6.4 assists and has had five games of 10 dishes or more. Moreover, Arenas is fully aware of the areas on the floor where Butler ("the logo and the top of the college three-point line") and Jamison ("the corner and the baseline") like to maneuver and steers clear of them. "I've never considered him selfish," says Jamison. "He makes the effort to get guys like myself and Caron involved. He will do whatever it takes to win."
Even if he decides to finish the season as, say, Shooter McGavin? "He didn't say that, did he?" laughs Jamison. Any suggestions? "Boobie Miles," says Jamison, bringing up the star running back from Friday Night Lights. "Because if you wanna win, put Boobie in."
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ON LAKERS center Andrew Bynum (right), who through Sunday had averaged 13.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks since returning to the starting lineup on Jan. 4:
"Anytime you have a Hall of Fame guy like Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] working with you, it's going to accelerate your learning curve. Bynum's skills are so good that it's going to be up to him to determine how good he becomes. If he doesn't get hurt, he could play in this league for 20 years. He's not showing a whole lot from the foul line or in the pick-and-pop, and he needs to learn that extended jump hook that no one can block. But he already has a righthanded hook shot over the left shoulder, he's got a drop step, and he can finish anywhere around the basket. The sky's the limit."