The Education of Andray Blatche

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

In addition to the Season Preview piece the site has, I wanna take an in depth look at a player who figures to play a big part in Brooklyn's success this year.

Think back to the summer of 1999. The San Antonio Spurs had just won their first NBA Championship, Michael Jordan was back into retirement, and Commissioner David Stern began to publicly advocate for an age limit in the NBA Draft. Stern and others felt that the younger guys weren't ready for the league and were dragging the level of play down from the highpoints of yesteryear. Then Rockets forward Charles Barkley agreed with this sentiment, arguing:

"We have a lot of young kids who haven't matured into superstars, and that's the biggest problem," said Houston forward Charles Barkley, who left Auburn after his junior year.

"Every kid in high school and every kid after one or two years of college wants to go pro now. We have to find a way for these kids to stay in college longer or give them some type of grooming, because they're not ready to take over yet."

As history would show us, fears of high schoolers flaming out early were and are largely incorrect. Despite this, the owners and Players Association agreed to an age limit of 19 years old in the summer of 2005. Proponents of the age limit framed the new rule as one that would benefit the players as they would learn about their games while getting a free education and building their brand. Left unsaid by these coaches was that they stood to directly gain from this rule change. The age issue is an issue that has been, and perhaps will always be, discussed since its inception. There are way more opinions on this matter, but I'm gonna use two before we move on. First up, SacTown Royalty & SB Nation Editor Tom Ziller:

Why is the age minimum a players' issue? Because free agency means more than being able to pick your team. It means having the agency to freely make choices about how to build a career. The age minimum wiped a popular path off the table for no good reason. (The NBA maintains that it was a business decision. Owners didn't want to have to force their teams to scout and take risks on less developed players. Of course, even with that hurdle removed, GMs still pick busts at the same rate as before the age minimum.)

Why is this a players' issue? Because of guys like Nerlens Noel, who would have been a top-10 pick if not for the age minimum. Instead, he signed with Kentucky for a year, confirmed his status as the best prospect in the land, and suffered a torn ACL on Tuesday. He will miss the season. If the injury is as bad as it seems, his draft stock could tumble, and the age minimum could cost him real dollars. And it's not all about injuries: it's about forcing players to delay their earning career -- which hurts their families in many cases -- and it forces them into the shady underworld of high-stakes college athletics. Ask Shabazz Muhammed. Ask Derrick Rose, who would likely have been suspended for half of his sophomore season had an age-20 minimum been in place in 2008. Imagine if the age minimum had been put in place in 2002-03. Imagine the circus of eligibility questions around LeBron James, who had a car issue and a jersey issue. Subjecting players to all of that should be something the union works to avoid. Making suits rich under a sham of amateurism should be something the union works to avoid.

And former player, executive, and current TNT analyst Steve Kerr in a guest piece over at Grantland:

That level of immaturity naturally leads to growing pains; it's why so many young players struggle for a season or two as they adjust to the workload, schedule, travel, stress, and media scrutiny, and especially, with seemingly basic off-the-court stuff like managing money, paying bills, and dealing with pressures from their extended family. Even with a few NBA seasons under their belts, that lack of life experience and the backbone of a college education hampers many players' ability to handle adversity and/or make difficult decisions. (See Howard, Dwight.) The league would obviously benefit by its rookies arriving with a little more seasoning, both on and off the court, armed with a little more life experience to prepare them for the oncoming challenge. A more mature workforce means a stronger league. Even one extra year of college would help.

NBA franchises spend anywhere from 50 million to 100 million on yearly salaries, plus another few million per year evaluating and developing players. For a scout or general manager (I've only been the latter), seeing a prospect for one measly four-month season of college ball increases the risk of being wrong about his potential. Remember, talent evaluation is a business in which, in the words of Jerry West, the greatest GM of all time, "Being right 51 percent of the time means you're doing well." Having an extra season to assess the potential of college players would cut down on the personnel mistakes that teams inevitably make in the draft, something that could potentially save the league tens of millions of dollars every year.

Meet Andray Blatche

With the threat of the age limit looming over future high schoolers, Andray Blatche and his fellow high schoolers showcased their skills at the 2005 Jordan Classic. Considered to be the second best big man behind Greg Oden and a sure  fire first round pick in the Draft. Blatche had been improving his game and becoming more confident in himself as he progressed through high school. And as potentially one of the last high schoolers that could ever be drafted, he had a clear understanding of what that entailed:

"I can’t say it won’t be more than normal because you know people are going to use me as an example of what to do," said Blatche, who wants to move his mother and brother out of Syracuse to where his mother’s family lives in North Carolina. "If I’m a slouch out there, people are going to point at me and say, ‘See, he shouldn't have gone.’ But if I do well, they’ll have to think differently."

Leading up to the draft, it was safe to assume that Blatche was a lock to be drafted in the first round. And where did he end up? 49th (and as it turned out, the second to last high school draft pick in league history). Even though he wanted to be drafted higher (who doesn't), Blatche took the low position in stride:

"I was getting a lot of advice from a lot of people, and I figured that I was going to go earlier than I did. But it's cool. God makes everything happen for a reason. I'm just looking at going in the second round to the Wizards as a reason to work even harder to reach my goals."

The first two years were uneventful on the court, but off the court was a different story. In September of 2005, Blatche was the victim of a carjacking and was shot in the chest as well. He was able to return relatively quickly, but only appeared in 29 games as a rookie.

His second saw a little progress, as he appeared in 56 games and shot better from the field compared to his rookie year. Unfortunately, Blatche got himself in the news again. In late August, Blatche got himself picked for solicitation. In an interview a couple of years later, Blatche reflected on the situation and said:

"It was a joke gone bad. She was not dressed as a prostitute."

The Breakthrough

Fearing that they were gonna get stuck like the Warriors were with Gilbert Arenas, Washington signed Blatche to a five year extension in the Summer of 2007. It was clear to see why they resigned Blatche. He was very young, the contract was inexpensive, and there were signs that he was on the upswing.

Blatche rewarded management's faith in him by having his best season to date. He appeared in all 82 games and started in 15 of them. In a little over 20 minutes, he averaged 7 points and 5 rebounds. With Arenas out for a couple of months as he recovered from surgery, Blatche took on a bigger role in the offense. He upped his free throw percentage, efficiency inside the restricted area (slightly, but still), and was a better jumpshooter than the year before (7 percentage points better from the midrange to be precise). Over at Bullets Forever, Mike Prada (going by Pradamaster) has more:

Blatche does deserve a lot of credit though for his season.  The big worry about him was that he'd go into the tank after signing that five-year contract.  He had his money, so knowing his lackadaisical attitude, there was concern that he'd lost his incentive to improve.  Instead, he improved significantly.  He shot the ball far more effectively this year than in year's past, and he was able to cut his turnovers down, all while still maintaining a solid rebounding rate.  His PER has now jumped for three straight seasons, going from 10.1 in his rookie year to 12.1 in 07 and to 15.5 this past year.  Better yet, he had far more confidence in his offensive game, as evidenced by the jump in his usage rate.  Instead of wandering around on the offensive end, he was looking for his shot.  That's a big sign from someone who's being counted on to provide a mismatch for slower big men

I think our feelings on Blatche all come down to expectations.  If you look at him as someone who should be a franchise-changer on the level of the Big 3, then there's reason to be worried.  He hasn't demonstrated the focus to get to that level yet, and you have to wonder whether he ever will.  But if you look at him as an effective reserve and as someone who was drafted late in the second round, then I don't see how you can be disappointed.

However, even without Arenas, things remained the same for Washington in the playoffs. They got knocked out in the First Round for the third consecutive year by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this happened along the way:

(Yes, I needed a reason to sneak Jay-Z into this. You're welcome.)

Moving back to Blatche, he found himself in the news again in the 2008 offseason. This time, he got arrested for reckless driving and driving with a suspended license. Speaking about Blatche's arrest, GM Ernie Grunfeld said:

"We are obviously disappointed in Andray's actions and expect him to use better judgment, especially in light of his past incidents.

Over at Bullets Forever, Jake Whitmore assessed Blatche's standing within the Wizards fanbase and found that:

The opinions on Andray_Blatche within the Wizards fanbase are as varied and inconsistent as Andray's on-court production.  Some see a 22 year old who is

that close to having a breakout season and just needs to be given a little more time to realize the potential that we've all seen glimpses of at different point in his career.  Others see a player coming off his 4th NBA season who has been given too many chances to put all of his gifts together.

As we all know, with great trust comes great responsibility.  In the past, Andray could have made the case that he deserved more minutes than he received.  With Songaila out of the way, there are no more excuses.  The pressue is now on Andray's shoulders to make the most of this chance to prove to the judge and the jury what he can be.

(emphasis mine)

Blatche's numbers essentially stayed the same, but there was something very different in Blatche's offense. I mentioned earlier that Blatche improved on his midrange shooting in 2007-2008, but he still wasn't good at it. He only shot 34.57 percent from the midrange area, which is awful, but he only took about 2 a night so he didn't hurt Washington that much. However, the amount of jumpers Blatche attempted exploded. Even though he played 11 fewer games than the year before, he took 66 more midrange jumpers than the year before. How does it look visually?

Shotchart_1382584715732_medium

(from NBA.com)

Ouch. Blatche had never been a great rebounder so his performance on the glass wasn't a surprise. Same goes for his defense (which makes it very, very curious that Eddie Jordan envisioned him guarding LeBron or Tracy McGrady. Jordan was fired early into the season). As a team, the Wizards struggled defensively, allowing 111.2 points per 100 possessions and an opponent effective field goal percentage of 53.3 percent, highest in the league. The Wiz were slightly better defensively with Blatche in the game, but it wasn't nearly enough to make their 19-63 worth remembering.

Even from high school, everyone could see that Blatche had the blueprint for greatness. However, he just wasn't able to put it together at the pro level. Over at Truth About It, Kyle Weidie breaks it down:

We’ve seen enough glimpses of ‘dream’ Andray that his occasional dazzling pass induces drooling from Wizards fans like Pavlov’s bell. But we’ve also been conditioned to know than an unforced turnover, or an ill-advised jumper early in the shot clock, will quickly follow as backwards steps negating anything he does positive.

Blatche has a skill set like no other, and maybe that’s the problem. He tries to do too much. The Wizards have more depth than ever before, and obviously diverse abilities to boot. On defense, Andray needs to concentrate on the basics: blocking shots without gambling and fouling (at least his fouls/36 mins dropped a whole unit from 07-08 to 08-09 — 5.5 to 4.5), and staying in front of his man, securing defensive boards. Learning some communication from Brendan Haywood wouldn’t hurt either.

Interlude silliness:

The Struggle Continues

Blatche got a contract extension prior to the 2010-2011 season. The deal was praised in some circles, but in others:

When Blatche signed an extension recently, it was met with universal praise from Wizards fans. "We got a good deal!" they said. But we're also fooling ourselves into thinking that Blatche might be the long-term answer at power forward, and that's counter-productive. It'd be like signing Charlie Villanueva. On a championship team? Okay, makes sense. He can help off the bench. On a rebuilding team? What's the point? He just takes up space and minutes.

And if you got a great deal on a glorified Charlie Villanueva, what did you really get?

He came into the 2010-2011 season coming off of foot surgery, and he continued to display the bad trends that had been plaguing him throughout his career. Prada hits on it here, but one look at his shot chart

Shotchart_1382595290749_medium

and you'd be pissed off too. When your big man takes about as many shots from the midrange as he does from the restricted area, he better shoot like Dirk Nowitzki or Kevin Garnett. Blatche didn't, and when you take into account his poor rebounding and bad defense, you've basically got Charlie Villanueva. And to put the cherry on top, Blatche made the news once again, this time for getting into a fight outside a club in DC.

Over at Bullets Forever, Sean Fagan took a look back at Blatche's year and wondered what the future held for the young big man:

The question thus becomes one of role, utility and timeframe.  The Wizards seem likely to take at least one more year to gamble on Blatche and figure out his place on the team. What role he plays and how he is used will go a long way to determining his effectiveness. There is just as much chance that Blatche with all his skill could emerge as a force much as LaMarcus Aldridge did for the Trailblazers (though probably not quite as good). There is also just as much chance that what we see is what we get and that Andray Blatche is no better than a seventh or eighth man on a decent team.

We've Had Enough

As Fagan alluded to, Blatche was on his last legs in Washington. He had been with the team six seasons and had yet to truly have a breakout season. Making matters worse was the new contract he signed and all the pressures they brought along with it (even if he was being paid essentially what the league average player was getting).

However, Blatche did himself no favors by continuing the hijinks off the court and poor play on it. He was booed relentlessly and eventually got himself exiled for being out of shape. The writers over at Truth About It discussed Blatche and said:

Blatche is a talented specimen, but the NBA is full of gifted, athletic freaks. If Andray wants to continue to be a professional basketball player, he "must" modify his game. There is little value for a 6-foot-11 power forward who shoots erratic, off-balance 20-foot jumpers and he will no longer get 5-10 isolation opportunities a game. The only path forward is for him to battle down low for boards and easy scoring chances, and only then work his game out from there. Sure, he lacks athleticism, but he can still be crafty around the rim. Being a back-up big, playing 15-20 minutes a game and contributing positively is not that far-fetched. Just look at what Boris Diaw is doing in San Antonio compared to appearing fat, lazy and spent in Charlotte.

The potential was still there, but he wasn't gonna have any more chances to unlock it in the nation's capital. Wizards management had enough of Blatche and used the get out of jail free card amnesty clause to get rid of him. While new owner Ted Leonsis liked Blatche personally, he wasn't too broken up about cutting him:

Q. I was thinking about your book, "The [Business] of Happiness." Did you ever think that that pursuit would involve cutting someone a check for $23 million NOT to work for you?

A. It isnt emotional with me in any way. There was a new CBA — there was an amnesty clause — we could use it if we wanted — the coach and GM and several players said we would be a better team if we used it. 15 other players have been amnestied to date, it is a tool that can be used now. So we used it.

Mike Prada reflected on Blatche's seven years in DC and said:

The broken foot, though, ruined a lot of that progress, and that's Blatche's fault. I think it gave him an excuse to feel sorry for himself instead of continuing the momentum he showed in the latter part of the 2010 season. He didn't rehab the injury vigorously enough and used it as an excuse for his poor play to begin the season.

Had he not suffered that broken foot, maybe things would be different. But from that point on, no amount of work he did could make up for the poor mindset he showed that summer. It only got worse when the Wizards tried to inspire him by making him the team captain the next year. That just added pressure and responsibility on a player that responded poorly to success and even more poorly to failure.

Of course, one cannot reflect on Blatche's career without noting that he is the only player drafted by the Wizards during Ernie Grunfeld's tenure that received a contract extension (two, in fact). At the time, I thought that it was a calculated risk, an attempt to secure a bargain deal if he continued to develop that likely wouldn't have come if he had another good year and hit the open market. In retrospect, Grunfeld probably should have taken Blatche's history, disposition and current foot injury into account before locking him up with a long-term commitment. Clearly, he overestimated the need to prevent Blatche from hitting the open market.

Welcome to Brooklyn

In a surprising decision, Blatche turned down the reigning NBA Champion Miami Heat and signed with the Brooklyn NetsExpectations weren't all that high among the team and the fanbase, so any value Blatche would have been seen as a bonus. So how'd he do?

Metric

Andray Blatche

Centers in 2012-2013

Games Played

82

51

Minutes per game

19

19

True Shooting percentage

54.7

54.5

Assist rate

8.55

10.17

Turnover rate

13.8

15.83

Usage rate

26.5

17.74

Rebound rate

15.8

15.7

PER

21.9

15

Win Shares per 48

.153

.100

Wow! Considering how mediocre he was on the court and foolhardy off of it, it's a minor miracle that Blatche put everything together and had the best season of his career. He set career highs in: True Shooting percentage, PER, Win Shares, usage rate, Offensive Rating, and Defensive Rating. After complaining about not getting the ball enough in the post after the first day of the season, a cursory look at his shot chart shows that Blatche was well fed on the inside. He shot a career high 65.59 percent inside the restricted area on 359 total attempts. Blatche still isn't someone you'd call a great rebounder or defender (the Nets were the same on the glass and a little worse defensively) so his performance on that end isn't that much of a surprise. Along the way, Blatche even managed to win over one of his critics. Over at The Brooklyn Game, Devin Kharpertain wrote:

To say I was one of Blatche's most vocal critics at the beginning of this season would be akin to saying Carlos Boozer addresses referees with a moderate tone after an unjust foul call. I lambasted the decision. I called him a five-tool player in that he was 1) unathletic, 2) lacked desire, 3) a terrible defender, 4) an inefficient scorer, and 5) a poor teammate. He came to training camp in allegedly the best shape of his career, and I was still highly skeptical of a player who I saw lacking in talent, desire, and character.

Then Andray Blatche started hitting stepbacks. He'd run the floor in transition. He'd make mistake after egregious mistake and suddenly make up for them in equally ludicrous ways. He'd hit double-pump reverse layups that he had no business taking. I called him "The Greatest Show In Sports" on more than one occasion. Whenever he caught the ball at the high elbow, time froze. You had no idea what he was going to do, you just knew it would end spectacularly, even if the possession went down in flames. He'd get terrible tunnel vision, until he whipped a pass around two defenders to an open teammate. If basketball is a game of deception, no one threw more tomfoolery at defenses this season in Brooklyn than Blatche, who often didn't seem to have any idea what he was doing in the first place. Reason is anathema. Creativity and improvisation ruled the second Andray Blatche touched the ball, for better, for worse, and for glorious.

At his best, Andray Blatche ranked as the best backup center in the league. At his worst, he was a problematic defender. Throughout the season, he was nothing if not wildly entertaining.

One of the complaints the NetsDaily community had about the coaching (and believe me, there were plenty) was the lack of playing time Blatche had on the court with Brook Lopez. They were only on the court together for 102 minutes in the regular season and 57 in the First Round series vs. Chicago. The times they were on at the same time, the Nets played pretty well. Tom Lorenzo was impressed:

First of all, I was a little surprised to see how well this combo clocked in on the defensive side of the ball. I suppose I was as equally shocked when I saw that they posted a team-best 63.8% Rebound Rate. Blatche-Lopez also posts a better +/- than Evans-Lopez, as well as a higher OffRtg and NetRtg. So, you know, case closed, right?

Well, when you consider that Blatche and Lopez have played just 73 minutes together -- nearly 800 fewer than Lopez-Evans -- it's hard to come to any concrete conclusions based on the data. We need to see more of this combo in order to really paint a proper picture.

Yes, the offense is better. Much better -- we know that, we expect it to be. Though it is a tad-bit slower with Blatche and Lopez on the floor together. Evans is no gazelle -- nor is he much of a finisher -- but he is quicker than Blatche, just not as skilled as him with the ball in his hands. You win one, you lose one.

Brook Lopez too:

"It was good; it was a lot of fun," Lopez said. "It was good to finally be out there and try everything out. I personally wondered for a while if it was going to work. So this was good to finally be out there and test it.

Amid the sea of positivity, something very disturbing happened. Blatche was alleged to have witnessed a sexual assault taking place, but did nothing to stop it. Blatche denied the allegation and has not been charged with anything. At Sports on Earth, writer Emma Span disapproved of the way the Nets reacted to Blatche's situation. She writes:

The Nets have turned over a new leaf in many ways this season: new arena, new borough, new fans. Perhaps they could also find a new way for teams to respond to allegations like the ones facing Blatche right now. It’s not easy or simple, and the legal issues are admittedly complex. But surely there is a way to respect the rights of their player while still making it clear that this is something they take seriously, something that concerns them -- and something more important than Blatche’s stats and playing time on any given night.

Instead of moving elsewhere, Blatche decided to stay in Brooklyn, signing a 1 year deal in the offseason (Net Income was the first to break down the math on Blatche way back in December).

Championship Dreaming

If the Nets want to make it to and win the NBA Finals, they're gonna need Blatche to play at the same level he did last year. One thing that should be different is the amount of time he plays with Brook Lopez. They barely played together last year, and when they have played together in the preseason, they've looked solid. And as of now, he is in line to get a few starts as well. In August, Jason Kidd said that Kevin Garnett might get the second halves of back-to-back games off. Naturally, Garnett pushed back at this (and he has a decent case).

This is true of every player, but Blatche is gonna have to make smart decisions with the ball. He has the ability to make special plays passing the ball, but if you had your way, you'd really prefer it if he didn't try those plays. He shot above 40 percent from the midrange area for the first time in his eight year career & was solid inside. Unlike most years, the overwhelming majority of his shot attempts came from inside the restricted area last year. I would expect this to keep up as Blatche is more than capable of bullying the opposing team's frontcourt on the inside.

Compared to other Centers in the Association, Blatche was only league average on the glass, and he's gonna have to improve on that. Defensively, he still figures to be a weak point, but with the presence of Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko, there's a better chance his flaws will be hidden/minimized.

The Long Road Here

It's been a rough journey for Blatche to get here. For a long time, he was the perfect representation of why the league felt it was necessary to institute an age limit on its draftees. He clearly had potential and displayed it at times, but he was inconsistent, immature off the court, and waste of his team's resources. However, and with the help of a more stable organization, Blatche was able to play at a high level and fulfill what everyone saw in him when they pegged him as a possible first round pick all the way back in his high school days.

It's not unfair to suggest that Blatche might revert back to form this year. He's had  plenty of terrible seasons under his belt and a history of underachieving when expectations have risen, and expectations are very high for the Nets this year. However, with all of the additions made this past offseason, Blatche shouldn't have to worry about trying to do too much and should focus on doing what he does best. He'll never be someone you build your franchise around, but as your first big man coming off the bench? It looks like a perfect fit so far for the Nets.

How best to describe Blatche? Why not let 19 year old Andray do the honors:

"I know I can do what those players can do. It might take me some time to get used to the league, but I know I can play at that level. To me, this isn't a risk. It's an investment in my future."

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