Project Zero is going well. The rehabilitation of Andray Blatche's career. It's been underway for only a few weeks and the Nets can barely restrain themselves. And make no mistake about it. This is Avery Johnson's project. The coach's comment to Bruce Beck that Blatche could "one of the steals of free agency" is just the latest. Both publicly and privately, team officials led by the coach have praised Blatche for his effort as well as his skills.
As one league source said after talking to the Nets basketball people, "They are all raving about him ... They're very excited." Johnson is leading the cheers. He took the chance, quite likely encouraged by his success rate with rehabilitation projects.
Blatche has taken a well-worn path back to grace, starting with an apology, then an admission that he needed someone to help him (in this case, John Lucas) and a promise that he would blow a second chance, telling a trusted reporter that he would play anywhere, even the D-League, to get back to basketball. When seeking redemption, a dose of humility never hurts.
The final piece is, as always, finding that one person who's willing to take a chance that he's changed. That person was Johnson, who quietly revels in his ability to help turn around careers. He did it in Dallas and performed a similar mission last year with the Nets. When no other coach or team would take a chance on Gerald Green, he did. According to those close to Johnson, he was prouder of how he helped Green get back in the league than almost anything else last year. Too bad, the Nets couldn't make that work long term.
Reports from inside the PNY Center see another Johnson rehab underway. In his public statements, Johnson has been nothing but encouraging from day one. "No concern whatsoever," he said early on when asked about Blatche’s previous missteps. "I told him this when we met for the first time: It's a clean slate"
Johnson recommended Billy King sign the 6'11" Blatche after working him out in Houston, following the same script he used with Green. While noting that Blatche has a "clean slate," he also said the Nets would work him in slowly, telling reporters, "With him, we don’t want to give him unrealistic goals. But we want to give him every opportunity to succeed and I think he’s really going to provide depth for us at the center and power forward position.
"He has pretty much a program that I have him on specifically, physically. There's some things mentally that we've talked about. Basketball on the court, off the court. He has his program. Keep me happy and then he'll be fine."
Johnson entrusted Blatche to Mario Elie, his tough-as-nails assistant. He offered public encouragement and a bit of praise. As camp began, Johnson said. "The kid has been terrific. He lost weight. He’s in phenomenal shape. And the feedback I’ve been getting from a lot of the guys (during voluntary workouts) when he’s on the floor he’s running the court well, he’s got good hands. He can shoot the ball well."
Now, the coach is basically unrestrained. Following Friday's scrimmage, Johnson cryptically told beat writers, "Brook Lopez needs to come out everyday for practice because Blatche thinks a lot of himself." Others inside said that indeed Blatche had played well on both ends of the court against Lopez. Now, Johnson is saying he "could be one of the steals of free agency." Heady stuff, considering the Nets haven't even yet committed to guaranteeing Blatche's $1 million salary after taking on a third of a BILLION dollars in contracts this summer.
His teammates have also volunteered their praise, particularly the team's two oldest and most experienced players, Jerry Stackhouse and Keith Bogans. Stackhouse told a Knick fan blog, "This guy can do it all. He can stand out...he played the five, he's big enough to play the five. There's not a five in the league who can guard him. You know what I'm saying? He has perimeter skills. He can put the ball on the floor and he can pretty much get his shot off when he wants to. His commitment has to be on the defensive end. and trying to understand the team concept, the team defense."
Bogans was a bit more economical in comments to HoopsWorld but no less encouraging. "Blatche is impressive," Bogans said. "That’s all I’m going to say right now. From the time he walked into the gym, I’ve been impressed with him."
Blatche has expressed gratitude and promised to perform at a level commensurate with his talents, tweeting last week, "I love my team and coaching staff so happy I came here."
The question of course is can it be sustained. Blatche has always shown flashes of what he could be, of the talent he's wasted. In 2010-11, he finished another lost Wizards season in a rush, averaging 23.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over the last month of the season. The games were meaningless, but it gave Washington the confidence that the then 24-year-old could be not just a solid performer but a star. He didn't even play last April, given the month off because of "conditioning issues." Then, he was amnestied.
Those who have questioned Blatche's commitment in the past will be hard to convince. The litany of immaturity and missteps is too long. For Blatche, the first opportunity to change their minds will come a week from today, when the Nets walk onto the court at Barclays Center for the very first time. The game will be against the Wizards.