Signing with Lakers has a nice ring to Blake

Steve Blake had been through the process several times in his seven-year NBA career: the declaration of free agency, postseason negotiations between his longtime agent and teams interested in signing the former Maryland point guard, starting over in a new city with a new team, and a new set of expectations.

This time, Blake acknowledges, was different.

How often does a player who has averaged less than eight points and five assists for his career get pursued by a two-time defending NBA champion and personally welcomed by the league's most accomplished star? That's what happened when the Los Angeles Lakers signed Blake, 30, to a four-year, $16 million contract and Kobe Bryant texted Blake upon his arrival.

"This has a different feel," Blake said this week at his annual summer basketball camp in Germantown. "I feel more respect comes along with it, knowing that a team that won championships at the highest level wants you to be a part of their team, of all the people in the world they can choose from. It makes you feel good, like you've finally made it."

A pro career that began when Blake was drafted in the second round by the Washington Wizards and that weaved its way across the country -- with stops in Milwaukee, Denver, Portland twice and Los Angeles, where he finished last season with the Clippers -- has reached its pinnacle, or least the possibility of it, with one of the NBA's most storied franchises.

At an introductory news conference in Los Angeles, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said he has followed Blake's career since first working him out before the 2003 draft. Bryant was quoted as saying he has long appreciated Blake's defensive tenacity and admired that he didn't back down after receiving a well-placed elbow from the 2010 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.

The Lakers contacted Blake's agent, Joel Bell, on July 1, the first day that teams were able to offer free-agent contracts. Blake agreed to terms as soon as he was allowed.

"I kind of wanted the process to be quick," Blake said. "I wanted to have that stability for my family early on in the free-agency period. When the world champions come calling on the first day, it was hard to pass up that opportunity. I didn't let things drag on. I probably could've waited a little longer, maybe got more money [from another team], but it wasn't worth it."

At first, it seemed the Lakers were interested in Blake because they thought they might be losing veteran point guard Derek Fisher, who has played on five championship teams with Bryant in Los Angeles. After initially rejecting an offer from the Lakers and briefly talking with the Miami Heat, Fisher, 35, signed a three-year deal to return.

"Before Fisher signed, they told me they were looking to bring him back, and most likely he would start this year, and possibly in the years after I could move into a starting role," said Blake, who has been a starter in 299 of 499 NBA games, mostly with Portland and Denver. "There are a lot of variables, so you never know how things work out."

NBA television analyst Steve Kerr called Blake's signing with the Lakers "the most underrated" of the offseason so far.

"It kind of went under the radar because it happened around all the LeBron [James] stuff," said Kerr, who has returned to TBS after three seasons as president and general manager of the Phoenix Suns. "He's absolutely perfect for the Lakers. He could be really good in the triangle [offense]. He can play either guard spot. He handles the ball, he shoots it, he passes it, he's an excellent defender. I think he'll earn Kobe's respect pretty quickly."

Asked about playing in Phil Jackson's famed offense, Blake said, "There's an understanding there, you definitely know it, but you have to be in it to truly understand it."

Kevin Grevey, who played in the NBA for 10 years and has scouted for the Lakers the past 11, saw Blake many times during his career at Maryland and recalled being surprised at how athletic Blake was at his initial workouts with the Lakers before the 2003 draft. Not many people thought that Blake was a better prospect than Juan Dixon and Chris Wilcox were after the Terps won the 2002 NCAA championship.

"If you took a poll of who would have been the best pro off that team, there wouldn't be many people who said Steve Blake. I think many people didn't even think he'd make it in the league," Grevey said. "Obviously, he has talent, but he must have incredible confidence to achieve what he has. If he takes care of himself and stays healthy, he'll play 12 to 15years. Who would have thought that?"

Blake said he was fortunate that, unlike Dixon, he had a true position.

"I haven't had to change the way I played to make it to the next level every time," Blake said. "I've changed to the style of the coach, but I've always been consistent in the way I've played. I've always been a pass-first point guard, knock down open shots and play good defense. I've just kind of had to get better at those skills I've had."

The one area in which he has noticeably improved is his 3-point shooting. A reluctant 3-point shooter at Maryland, Blake has made nearly 40 percent of his 3s as a pro.

"At Maryland, I was capable of shooting [3-pointers], but as I got to the NBA I realized how important that 3-point shot really is," he said. "With it being farther back, you can really separate yourself."

The move to the Lakers comes after what many thought might have been Blake's most trying season. Blake lost his starting job in Portland, spent a few days in the hospital with pneumonia and later was traded from a playoff contender to the lowly Clippers before the deadline. Blake's maturity and low-key personality helped him look at things differently.

"It kind of looks like that from the outside, but I'd already been in the NBA. This is my seventh year, and I know those kinds of things happen," he said. "This year wasn't as challenging as it might have looked. I continued to play my game, play hard and things worked themselves out. I tend to not stress about playing time."

Blake liked living in Los Angeles, and he will move his family there after his wife, Kristen, gives birth to their third son next month. His 29-game stay with the Clippers turned out to be a positive for Blake, particularly the last game. Playing against the other residents of the Staples Center, Blake had his first career triple double, finishing with 23 points, 11 assists and a career-high 10 rebounds.

That left a lasting impression on Bryant and the Lakers.

"It turned out to be a good thing for me," Blake said.

Blake now finds himself on the biggest stage of his career. From opening night at the Staples Center, when the returning players are given their championship rings, the pressure will be on Blake. Kerr said he had a similar feeling when Michael Jordan came out of retirement to play for the Chicago Bulls in 1995.

"There's definitely a different pressure that comes with the territory," said Kerr, who won three titles with the Bulls and two more with the San Antonio Spurs. "It's something that I think some players shy away from and some players embrace, and I'm guessing Steve will embrace it. I don't know him that well, but seeing him compete in the past, he seems like the type of guy who loves to be out on the court in the big moments, and he'll have plenty of big moments with the Lakers, that's for sure."

Said Blake: "It does bring a little bit more pressure because of the fact it's the Lakers, [and] they expect to win a championship. But as far as playing with Kobe, he's going to make the game easier for me. I played with Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Brandon Roy, Gilbert Arenas. I've played with a lot of superstars. It's something I'm comfortable with."

Bryant texted Blake shortly after he signed, telling Blake how much he respected his game and saying, "Welcome to the family." Blake said he was surprised by it, but "I had a lot of respect for the fact that he did that. He didn't have to. It starts to make you think there's a reason why they're the champions. There's a lot of things that go into being a champion, and welcoming a new teammate is the first step."

As Blake's father, Richard, switches his favorite NBA team once again, he likes to tell his buddies all about the text message to his son.

"To think that Kobe is chatting with Steve, that's pretty far out there for me," Richard Blake said.

It's certainly different from any of his son's previous five stops. That was evident at his summer camp, where kids would come up to Blake either to congratulate him or ask if it was true that he was going to play with Bryant.

"You can see kind of the 'wow' factor that name brings," Blake said. "If I said another team, it would be, 'Oh, OK, you play for them.' It's pretty cool to see the surprise and the 'wow' factor that comes along with it."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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