By Reid Cherner, USA TODAY
Juan Dixon and Steve Blake knew their time in the NBA would come.
The 6-3 guards believed it when they led the University of Maryland to the 2002 national championship.
Their confidence didn't waver while knocking around on teams in Washington, Portland and Milwaukee.
Heck, they expected it when Blake was leading Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., to championships and Dixon was engaging fellow Baltimore prep legend Mark Karcher in holiday tournament scoring duels.
They thought about it when Blake, the point guard, was teaching summer campers how to throw a perfect pass and Dixon, the scorer, was flaunting his long-range shooting touch.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Denver | Allen Iverson | PORTLAND | Nuggets | Carmelo Anthony | Raptors | Marcus Camby | University of Maryland | Steve Blake | Juan
When Blake's parents drove hundreds of thousands of miles to watch their son play and Dixon was dedicating his court time to his late parents, they anticipated professional success.
Being afterthoughts by several pro organizations did not deter them. Neither did being traded midseason.
Blake now starts for the Denver Nuggets, averaging more than six assists for the likes of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in the past 47 games. Dixon, entering Sunday, was averaging 11.7 points mostly coming off the bench in 23 games for the Toronto Raptors.
Both are having career seasons and, most important, playing for playoff-bound teams.
Toronto won the Atlantic Division and is third in the Eastern Conference. Denver, sixth in the West, is second in the Northwest Division.
MORE ON THE RAPTORS: Toronto team report
MORE ON THE NUGGETS: Denver team report
"Steve is a great friend, and I knew he just needed to find the right situation," said Dixon, who started the season in Portland. "We always had the confidence we could play in this league.
"When we were at Maryland, a lot of people said, 'What is Coach (Gary) Williams doing with these two guys who are not McDonald's All-Americans?' And we were able to do some great things."
Said Blake: "We were confident in ourselves and in each other."
Williams believed in his former "gym rats." His worry was that NBA organizations wouldn't hold the same beliefs.
"The NBA is a business, and a player like Juan and Steve need time to show what they can do for a team," Williams said. "There is a period when the team has to get adjusted to them and they have to get adjusted to the team. Sometimes, there isn't time to do that."
But he knew what they could offer.
"I always thought there was a place for Steve. Every team needs a guard that can settle things down, get the ball to the right people," Williams said. "Juan can change the game because he could be a catalyst coming in. He will make things happen. Some guys can just score, and Juan is that guy. It doesn't matter if he's shooting a jump shot or a floater in the lane — he just finds a way to score."
Squeezed out in Washington
Though Dixon and Blake got playing time with other organizations, they never felt they were in the best situations.
"I think what guys want, especially guys in my situation who are role players, they want to feel wanted," Dixon said. "I didn't feel like I was wanted in Washington. I didn't feel part of the plan.
"Portland was going in a different direction. When a team trades for you and puts you in a position where you are able to contribute, it makes you feel wanted."
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan laments that a numbers game stifled Dixon and Blake in Washington.
"They are players with a lot of heart," Jordan said. "They are working from an undersized, underdog role. That's how they thrive. They're always out there trying to prove themselves.
"They had terrific careers here, I thought. But they were playing behind Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes. That is the way it goes."
Blake's biggest fan knew it was only a matter of time before it went another way.
"He is an absolutely perfect fit for their team," said Richard Blake, who not only coached his son but later drove from Miami to College Park, Md., with his wife, Cindy, to see him play in college. "He is someone who is unselfish, can run a team and get the ball to the right person at the right time.
"It is pretty exciting to have your son playing in the NBA with Allen Iverson, Carmelo, Nene and Marcus Camby."
Dixon is pretty excited, too.
"I think we can be one of the top teams in the East," he said of the Raptors. "We have a superstar in Chris Bosh, we have a great point guard (T.J. Ford) and we have great role players. Hopefully, we can make some noise this year. We just want it to continue."
Making the right fit
Dixon and Blake are delighted to play with teams that have wide-open styles, believing their games are enhanced by that freedom. Denver is averaging 105 points a game, Toronto 99 entering Sunday.
Blake knows any points he scores are a bonus. His job is to get the ball to Anthony, Iverson, Nene and Camby.
"It is a nice situation for a point guard to have," he said. "I just have to find guys in the right spots, find the mismatches and know who is hot."
Blake suspected he was in for good things when Milwaukee sent him to Denver.
"I knew it was a good fit; I didn't know if it would be a great fit," Blake said. "Then I looked at the players that they have here, and I started to realize how great this situation was. When you have a chance to make good things happen, it makes you feel like you really have a career."
Dixon also knows how best to contribute.
"Coming off the bench, I just want to provide energy," said Dixon, who makes $2.55 million a year on a contract through 2008. "On a good night, hopefully, I can supply a good scoring punch, cause some havoc on defense, get some steals and immediate baskets in transition."
Blake, whose $1.33 million annual contract expires after the season, compliments the Raptors for easing his adjustment: "My teammates have made the transition so easy."
Their former college coach believes their NBA success was predetermined.
"What attracted them to me was that they loved to play, they were gym rats; they still are," Williams said."I would much rather coach a guy who loves the game as much as I do. That is something that makes you a winner. You feel like you put the time in and earned the right to (play in) big games."
Feeling at home
Steve Blake and Juan Dixon have found homes in Denver and Toronto. Both are exceeding their career averages in most categories with their new teams:
Dixon '06-07 Tor. Career Category Blake '06-07 Den. Career
26.6 21.1 Minutes 33.6 22.4
11.4 9.5 PPG 8.2 6.4
3.0 2.0 RPG 2.6 1.9
1.6 1.7 APG 6.5 3.6
43.8% 41.6% FG% 42.8% 40.2%
34.2% 33.7% 3P% 33.8% 36.9%
92.5% 83.0 FT% 72.7% 77.2%
Contributing: Roscoe Nance