RICHMOND -- DeShawn Stevenson understands if you rain on him for his miserable 2008/09 campaign, one that saw him slouch his badly-injured back through 32 games while shooting at a 31.2-percent clip. He may not like your criticisms, but he understands that it's all part of being a professional athlete.
"Everything is 'What have you done for me lately,' right?" he says when asked about how he feels about being counted out by so many people.
All he asks is that you, in turn, understand what he was going through last year, when even the most mundane tasks resulted in intense pain. Like driving a car, tying his shoes or standing upright after bending your knees.
"I had a pinched nerve, so anytime I put my chin down, I had a shooting pain through my butt," Stevenson says, trailing off at times and speaking clearly at others. "Anytime I got into my car to drive, I felt pain."
Those days are over now, after a trip to Vancouver to train with Alex McKechnie, the athletic performance coordinator for the Los Angeles Lakers whose list of clients recovering from a serious injury include Shaquille O'Neal and Grant Hill. After showing up to training camp at a whopping 245 pounds last season following a taxing 2007/08 season, Stevenson is back down to 225 pounds and looks light years better than he did at any point last year, both in body and in spirit.
Whether that means Stevenson is in the mix for the starting shooting guard position is tough to say. On the one hand, Stevenson was playing with fellow starters Gilbert Arenas, Brendan Haywood, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler today for an extended stretch during the controlled scrimmage. Coach Flip Saunders says he put those players together simply because they had not played much as a unit over the course of the week, but doing so one day before the teams' first preseason game could very easily be a sign of where Saunders is leaning.
"DeShawn's really stepped his game up over the past three or four days," Saunders says. "He's continued to get better and better."
Saunders has also already spelled out a role for Stevenson, something he has yet to do necessarily for Miller, Randy Foye, Nick Young or Dominic McGuire. With the Memphis Grizzlies coming to Richmond tomorrow for the Wizards' first preseason game, Saunders singled out Stevenson as a guy who would be asked to guard Allen Iverson. If Iverson comes off the bench as expected, Saunders said the Wizards would be in a situation where they would want to bring Stevenson off the bench to match up with Iverson.
"[Stevenson's] always going to compete hard defensively," Saunders says, in the middle of a monologue praising Stevenson's contributions.
But there have also been signs that the coach has his new acquisitions and his talented youngsters higher in the pecking order. At one point, after practice, Saunders praises how Foye and Miller "have the ability to take the pressure off [your main players] and make them better," as opposed to the star players making the role players better.
"People have to honor how they play, and I think Mike [Miller] does that," Saunders says. The coach then pauses for a second, as if he figured he was giving too much away, and mutters "and DeShawn [Stevenson] does too."
That pause, however, doesn't compare to the message Saunders sends (perhaps inadvertently) to Stevenson later. Saunders is asked whether antics such as Stevenson's "I Can't Feel My Face" and his feud with LeBron James potentially bother him with a coach. Saunders' response? "We don't have to wake up any sleeping giants. Those guys are good enough."
"Hopefully, as we get into it, our guys will understand that we worry about ourselves, not worry about what the other team is doing," Saunders says.
For his part, Stevenson says starting does not matter to him. His happiest responses, though, are when he was asked about what it felt like to be back out there playing with Arenas, Butler and Jamison again. He speaks clearly and manages a smile, saying "it felt good for me, because I haven't played basketball for like a year." He says his body feels great -- better than he expected, even -- and his anti-LeBron James mindset looks like it's back to normal after he tells reporters that he asked Mike Miller to stop wearing James' signature sneakers.
Whatever happens, Stevenson isn't quitting. His play may have -- and will continue to be -- uneven, but his competitiveness and his toughness continues to be an essential ingredient to the cake this Wizards team is trying to bake. Whether that competitiveness manifests itself into 25 minutes a game or five minutes a game remains to be seen, but after a season that Stevenson would want to forget, it's clear his swag seems to be back.