Arenas made the team but found himself almost immediately on the Injured Reserve list, not even dressing out for over a third of the season. Suddenly, leaving the comforts of college life at Arizona after only his sophomore season seemed like a bad idea for the not-yet 20-year-old Arenas.
"When I was on the IR I was having trouble with depression," Arenas said recently. "I thought I was never going to play and that I never should have left (Arizona)."
For someone who was reportedly "dominating" in team practices, Arenas sure wasn't getting the opportunity to showcase his talent in actual games for the Warriors. The team fell out of playoff contention shortly before tip-off of the season's second game and had nothing to lose by playing a third rookie (Troy Murphy and Jason Richardson were already part of the regular rotation). Still Gilbert sat.
In fact, it was so bad that over the course of two and half months (October 23-January 2), Arenas appeared in only two games for a total of 11 minutes.
"Being on the road at the beginning of the year was frustrating," Arenas said. "I was just sleeping my time away because I was so depressed about not playing. I realized that the NBA is way more political than college was. Here you can be better than someone but if he's a vet, he'll still play. I was doing so well in practice and I couldn't understand why I wasn't playing or why I was on IR. It seemed like the better I did in practice the worse it got for playing time."
When Arenas made the Warriors' opening night roster, he made a prediction for himself (and the media) that he would be a starter by the all-star break. During the first few months of the season, that prediction seemed about as likely to happen as ASU making the NCAA Tournament: not very. However, Arenas had an awakening of sorts one day while watching a highlight film from Arizona's run to the 2001 national championship game and realized that he had to MAKE something happen instead of waiting for something to happen.
"I grabbed a highlight tape from last year and thought, ‘those were the good old times!'" said Arenas, who was a second-team All-American for the Wildcats as a sophomore. "I saw myself playing and thought, ‘where's that guy?' but then I realized that I'm still the same but that I've just got to show it. So when I went back to practice, I went out there with a killer instinct."
The Warriors were about to place Gilbert back on the IR once again right before his 20th birthday on January 6th but one of the front office guys said to hold off for five more games, "let's see what he can do".
In his second game of that five game trial, Arenas came to life the way so many Arizona fans remember during his two-year stay in Tucson. He only played three minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers but he exploded for seven points in that very limited amount of time. He made all of his shots and left to chants of "GIL-BERT! GIL-BERT! GIL-BERT!" from the Golden State crowd.
"That was the game that I got it started with, "Arenas said. "They were chanting my name and I loved it. Then a couple games later, we were down by eight points with about a minute to go and coach put me in. I scored seven points real quick and we were only down by one but then he took me out. I think that was when I became the fan favorite."
Arenas' popularity spread to his teammates shortly after he had his role expanded as well. Especially because he found himself playing the point guard position more and had the ball in his hands on every possession.
"During the first 40 games, nobody passed the ball on our team," he said. "I decided that I was going to make everyone happy by sharing the ball. I like playing the (point) because I have the ball the whole time and it's under my control. But I would just come in the games and start passing to everyone.
"After three games, all the veterans were saying, ‘put Gilbert in!'"
February 5th, against the Seattle Supersonics, Arenas finally played double-digit minutes. His hard work in practice had paid off. The veterans, using their political pull, had lobbied for more playing time for the exciting rookie from Arizona and once he got his opportunity, Arenas made sure he made the most out of it.
Arenas wound up starting 30 of the Warriors' final 37 games and he was easily one of the most productive rookies in the League by season's end. Looking at his cumulative stats over the course of the year is misleading because of the lack of significant playing time. However, during those final 37 games, Gilbert averaged 13.5 points, 4.6 assists and 1.81 steals per game while playing an average of 30 minutes per night. Not bad for a guy who played a total of 52 minutes over his first 17 games as a professional.
When he started playing more, his attitude changed as well. He was no longer depressed and missing his buddy Jason Gardner at Arizona. Now he was back to the normal Gilbert Arenas, the one who told a room full of NBA execs that he wanted to be an "international pimp" if things didn't work out in the League.
"Those interviews are so boring!" He said. "Richard (Jefferson) dared me to do it and even those guys thought it was funny. I just think they took it too seriously and thought, ‘maybe this guy isn't serious enough about playing.'"
Life on the road with the Warriors got a lot more fun for Arenas now that he was playing more, too. No longer was he sleeping his time away being depressed and missing Arizona, now he was doing the same things that irked Lute Olson so much on trips to Pullman and Corvallis over the course of the Pac-10 season: goofing off in hotels.
"By the end of the year, being on the road was a lot of fun," Arenas said. "I'd run around and knock on everybody's door at like four in the morning and make all the guys mad at me. Sometimes I'd even do it when I knew one of the guys had a girl in there with him.
"I would also order room service off of Larry Hughes or Errick Dampier's accounts and have them send it to my room. They'd go around asking everyone who did it and I'd just be in my room eating all of the food they paid for myself. They never figured it out. I would call down to the lobby and say, ‘charge it to (a teammate's) room but bring it to this room'."
Eventually, former Arizona star and fellow teammate Chris Mills had to intervene and stop Arenas from making everyone go crazy. Mills started watching out for the very young Arenas as much as possible.
"No, Chris Mills didn't watch me, he BEAT me!" Arenas said. "Everyday he would beat me up. We live in the same area, about three houses down from each other and I go over to his house when I get bored sometimes. But even then he would just try to beat me up. He hates it when I tell him how old he is. He's by far the oldest player on our team. I'll find the oldest guy ever to play at Arizona and say, "Chris, what was it like playing with him?' but then he'll come and beat me."
Mills himself was a one-time rising star in the NBA as well as a former Pac-10 Player of the Year (way back) in 1993. Yet, now it is Arenas' turn to bask in the glow of NBA experts and GMs raving about his potential and his bright future as a guard in the League.
With his late-season success, Arenas has supplanted Larry Hughes as Golden State's starting point guard and it is likely that Hughes will ask for and receive a trade this offseason. However, with the Warriors' dismal 21-61 finish, a high lottery pick in this June's NBA draft is a certainty. Arenas knows loyalties are weak in the business of the NBA and that's still okay with him.
"I think we need more guys that are just basketball players," Arenas said of what Golden State needs the most. "I think either Jason Williams or the big Chinaman [Yao Ming] would be great for our team."
Wait a second, drafting Jason Williams, 2002's college player of the year from Duke, would be counterproductive to Arenas' career. Gilbert, however, doesn't see it that way. Even if the Warriors take Williams with their pick and name him their starting point guard, that's fine with Arenas.
"Sixth man of the year," Arenas said. "I know I'd still be playing 30 minutes a game and it doesn't matter if you start the game, only if you finish it. All I know is that I will never be on that bench again for the rest of my career."
Shortly after my conversation with Arenas, the NBA named him the April Rookie of the Month for averaging 16.6 points, 6.1 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game. The improvement he made from the beginning of the year to the end was remarkable, and because of that improvement, he had one more prediction to make.
"Next year you'll see me in one of the games during all-star weekend," he said. "Maybe on the sophomore team but maybe in the real all-star game. We'll see."
Thirteen months from now, Arenas will get his second NBA contract. This time it is sure to not only be guaranteed, but it should also have a few more zeros tacked on at the end as well. Thirteen months from now, no one will remember Gilbert Arenas for what he has in his Escalade. Thirteen months from now all anyone will think of when they watch Gilbert Arenas play is "how in the world was he a second round pick?"