OAKLAND, Calif. — At the beginning of training camp, Andrew Bogut set a goal to play all 82 regular-season games and regain his place among the NBA's best centers.
He's on pace to come awfully close.
With his health no longer holding him back, Bogut has been a force in the middle for the Golden State Warriors (29-19) entering Tuesday night's home game against the Charlotte Bobcats. He ranks near the top of the league in blocks, rebounds and defensive ratings, and he has begun to silence the chatter that he's a player who is always hurt.
"I haven't felt this great in while," Bogut said after Monday's practice, then quickly asking not to jinx his good fortune.
"Touch wood," he said.
The 7-footer from Australia, who has a well-documented history of injuries, has played in 47 of 48 games — with his lone absence stemming from a suspension handed down by the NBA for his role in a scrum against Portland. Bogut had played in only 44 games the past two seasons combined.
Bogut's presence has been especially big considering his primary backups, Jermaine O'Neal and Festus Ezeli, have been out most of the season.
"He's been spectacular, protecting the paint, setting screens, rebounding the basketball, being a leader, being durable," Warriors coach Mark Jackson said. "If he's not here, you're asking basically a power forward to be a (center), and to do it for a lengthy period of time is a recipe for disaster. But he's been awesome, and certainly should be in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year."
The Warriors took a big risk by signing Bogut to a three-year, $36 million extension in October that could be worth up to about $42 million with incentives. They also took a gamble when they acquired Bogut in a trade-deadline deal in March 2012 that sent guard Monta Ellis to Milwaukee.
Bogut did not play for Golden State that season while recovering from a fractured left ankle. Bogut battled back and knee injuries while averaging a career-low 5.8 points to go with 7.7 rebounds last season, but he was at his best in the playoffs, making a major difference on defense to help the Warriors advance to the second round.
Bogut missed the end of the 2009-10 season with the Bucks when he dislocated his right elbow, sprained his right wrist and broke his right hand in a hard fall to the floor. He also missed significant time with an injured lower back in the 2008-09 season.
Bogut has repeatedly called both injuries "freak accidents."
"People that label me injury-prone, it's fair enough, I understand it," Bogut said. "But to say that they're chronic injuries, those people are idiots. Two injuries that have hurt my career and probably shortened the length of my career and probably a little bit of my playing ability are completely out of my control."
Even still, the setbacks have taken a toll — physically and mentally. At one point while rehabbing his ankle last season, Bogut said he was in a "dark place" and even considered retirement.
Instead, Golden State's surprising playoff run — and his big role in it — left him rejuvenated. He lost about 15 pounds this offseason, and the only real injury scare cost him some practice time in January after he strained his right knee.
Bogut is averaging 10.6 rebounds and two blocks per game, and he has the NBA's third-best defensive rating — which is calculated by how many points are given up per 100 possessions while a player is on the floor.
Offense is still something that has eluded Bogut since his elbow injury, though on a Golden State team stacked with shooters, he's not asked to score much.
Bogut is averaging 8.2 points, which is sixth on the team, but he leads the Warriors with 64 percent shooting — with most of his points coming on pick-and-roll dunks or put-back rebounds. He's also rediscovering his passing ability — once considered among the best for NBA's centers — lately, including tying his season high with five assists in Friday's win at Utah.
"He's talented, man," point guard Stephen Curry said. "It's not often you see a big man get the rebound, push in transition, change directions a couple times, read the defense and make behind-the-back passes and one-handed passes for a backdoor cut. That creativity he has, I've rarely seen it for a guy his size."
Bogut, now 29, has concentrated on becoming a more versatile defender. He's not just guarding centers near the rim, but often going out against power forwards, including holding down All-Star starter Blake Griffin in a win over the Clippers last week.
Bogut believes he's "close" to playing the best defense of his career, and he's making a strong case to be on the first or second All-NBA Defensive teams. The only time Bogut could remember playing this well was before his injury in the 2009-10 season, when he finished second behind Orlando's Dwight Howard in blocks per game but didn't even get a vote for the defensive teams that season.
"Hopefully, I can make up for that this season," Bogut said. "But awards are predicated on how the team is, how the success of the team is, so if we go to the playoffs and make some noise, I think all that stuff will take care of itself."
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP
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