WASHINGTON - This Washington Wizards season ought to be all about newness and rebirth.
No.1 overall pick John Wall appears to be everything advertised and more, a 20-year-old with a court presence and maturity beyond his years. New owner Ted Leonsis' energy and enthusiasm is infectious, and his willingness to connect with fans and respond to the most mundane of concerns is helping rebuild the franchise's tattered image.
But there's a nagging leftover that won't go away, an unpredictable variable that has already upstaged the grand reopening party multiple times before the regular season can even start.
His name is Gilbert Arenas.
After his 50-game suspension and monthlong sentence in a halfway house for bringing guns into the locker room, the open question remains how much the former all-star guard learned from his experiences last season - or whether he is the same old Arenas who'll find any means to draw attention to himself.
Arenas stood out even more than usual at media day when he showed up with a thick beard, refused to smile for team photos and declared: "The only place I want to smile is on the court."
The brain trust could live with that, it seemed.
On Oct. 12, Leonsis invited everyone to the Wizards' first preseason home game, posting on his blog: "I don't care if Gilbert Arenas has a beard down to his knees as long as he is healthy; happy; 'coachable'; and is a great teammate - which I believe he is - all is good in my book."
Arenas then promptly embarrassed Leonsis and the team by faking a knee injury and skipping the game. The club had no choice but to act. He was fined $50,000. Arenas apologized by saying: "I screwed up again" - then went on to find a way to blame the media. Teammate Nick Young reacted with words that have been uttered far too many times: "That's just Gil doing Gil."
Arenas since has started to smile more, and he's shaved the beard. But now he's hurt. He made it through only three minutes of the Wizards' next game before leaving with a strained right groin, his third injury since the start of training camp.
No one in the organization wants to talk much about him; it only dents the team's image even more. Leonsis will blog about anything, but he didn't post a word about Arenas' fine. Asked if the franchise is just going to have to keep putting up with inevitable bumps in the road with Arenas, President Ernie Grunfeld avoided answering the question by talking about how Arenas, Wall and Kirk Hinrich will form a "nice three-guard rotation."
Pressed on the matter, Grunfeld said: "We're focusing on what goes on, on the floor. He's been a good teammate, and that's what we expected from him. What happened, we dealt with, and we're moving forward."
Moving forward means building around Wall, who is eight years younger chronologically than Arenas but arguably eight years more mature. Wall already has been named a team captain and averaged 15.7 points and 7.9 assists in seven preseason games.
"Most guys that come out at that age, they sit back and wait and see where they fit in," coach Flip Saunders said. "But he's very aggressive in his approach to leading and running a team."
A rotation that includes Wall, Arenas, Hinrich, Al Thornton, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Yi Jianlian won't strike much fear in the strong Southeast Division, but the Wizards should be content if they can pull off drama-free campaign and win a few more games.
Last season included the death of longtime owner Abe Pollin, the gun saga involving Arenas and teammate Javaris Crittenton, a fire sale around the trade deadline that sent veterans Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson on their way, and a 26-56 record. It was easily the most miserable season in franchise history.