Grade Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis’ idea to host an NBA-style Midnight Madness a success; it worked brilliantly. A formidable crowd at George Mason University’s Patriot Center loved every minute of it and his roster compilation of 20-somethings, one 30-year-old and one dazzling teenager put on a show in its glorified first practice session. The Wizards opened up the 2010-2011 season officially at midnight on Tuesday morning and if their first practice was any indication, it’s going to be an exciting season in the District.

In front of an energy-filled audience, Washington formally introduced top draft pick John Wall to give fans a taste of what the summer fuss has been all about. The 19-year-old practiced like a natural, blocking shots, flipping the ball behind his back in traffic and directing the offense like a seasoned veteran. After the PA announcer introduced his name last, the estimated crowd of 4,000 went berserk. With Wall T-shirts scatter throughout the crowd, it was easy to forget that former megastar Gilbert Arenas was even in the building—until the man once known as “Agent Zero” got his hands on the ball. Donning his new No. 9 jersey, Arenas showed he is still the best player on the roster. He resisted the temptation to attack Wall whenever the two were isolated on each other but did jab at him enough to keep the interest going.

Arenas never flashed a smile as he raced down court on sprints, dished crafty no-lookers and even sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the first quarter of Washington’s scrimmage. The fans never jeered him, never spat out anything obscene to remind him of his 30-day halfway house sentence over gun charges; they just cheered everything he did. Arenas and Wall apparently will share the ball and the spotlight this year as the Wizards try to reenter the realm of respectability this season. But as shown on Tuesday morning, they won’t be alone.

While other teams were busy stockpiling free agents, the Wizards were busy hoarding young talent. The assortment of young skill players in Washington’s rotation might be one of the best in the league. While Wall and Arenas received all the cheers, JaVale McGee, Nick Young and little-known guard Lester Hudson made all the shots. There wasn’t a set of guards more impressive than Young and Hudson in Washington’s first practice. The duo swished three-pointers and ran the court relentlessly while McGee showcased his incredible athleticism. The fourth-year Nevada center routinely finished alley oops and blocked several shots, including an Arenas attempt that sailed to the front row.

The Wizards’ Midnight Madness was a welcomed refresher of just how exciting the Washington basketball can be. A showcase of young and impressive athletes and a fun-filled, go-go cranking hype show that didn’t end until 1 a.m. Credit Leonsis—his design to revive Wizards basketball is going as smooth as planned.

“It’s a great thing for the fans to come out and try to catch a little bit of the atmosphere of training camp,” said NBA analyst David Aldridge. “Its fun for the fans to see guys doing some of the drills and getting a little bit of the flavor of what training camp is like.”


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO