Celtics interested in keeping Blount

He is, by most accounts, one of the more intriguing free agents. There aren't many agile, committed 7-footers out there. Even more, he was an almost automatic double-double over the second half of the 2003-04 season.

Mark Blount is going to make some decent dough this summer, even by the plutocratic standards of the NBA. A year ago at this same time, almost any NBA team could have had him for the so-called "million dollar exception."

Blount, the Celtics center, is chillin' at home in Florida (if that's possible in June/July) waiting for the phone to ring. If he doesn't have call waiting and caller ID, he should get them, pronto. He's bound to have a few suitors.

The Miami Heat, who play a Kobe Bryant 3-pointer away from Blount's Boca Raton home, are said to be quite interested. Given what they threw out there last year in the middle, why shouldn't they be? A team like Indiana might be tempted to pair Blount with Jermaine O'Neal. The Philadelphia 76ers have to be thrown into the mix if for no other reason than Blount is extremely loyal to their new coach, former Celtics head man Jim O'Brien.

And the Celtics? New coach Doc Rivers recently drove down to Blount's Boca pad and the two had lunch. Rivers said he came away from the repast thinking that Blount wanted to play for him and stay with the Celtics. Then again, what else is he going to say for public consumption?

Here's what we do know: Blount was so upset by everything that went down in Boston last season that it is going to take a major, major, selling job to get him back. And one of those sellers, Danny Ainge, is responsible for most of what went down in Boston. Last season, Blount was one of the few pillars in an otherwise crumbling scene of bodies and coaches. He watched while popular, valuable teammates were traded. He watched O'Brien walk out the door. He watched Ricky Davis walk in the door. He didn't like the sight.

As he grew further disenchanted with the situation, his play went the other way, turning him from a serviceable, NBA backup into a legitimate, NBA starter. Over the last three months of the season, he averaged 12.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots in 33.9 minutes a game.

From Jan. 23 until the end of the regular season, he posted 18 double-doubles, including a 28-point, 21-rebound game against Orlando on March 1. He finished second in the NBA in field-goal percentage (56.6 percent) trailing only Shaquille O'Neal. And, unlike Shaq, Blount has a decent mid-range jumper which he doesn't hesitate to take.

The idea that Blount could be a very valuable free agent at any time would have been almost laughable a year ago. He had gone from Boston to Denver and back to Boston and he was, as he is now, available to one and all. He elected to sign with the Celtics, in large part because of O'Brien, for the meager sum of around $1 million. There was a second year, a player's option, which, to no one's surprise, Blount tore up at the first available opportunity.

The Celtics got him on the cheap last year. If they get him at all, and, despite Rivers' optimism, that is anything but a sure bet, they will have to fork over a lot, lot more than $1 million. They know that.

"We want Mark Blount back," Rivers said.

Blount is being touted as an "exception guy" around the league -- and we don't mean the so-called "million dollar exception."

This year, Blount has become a mid-level exception player. How many teams would pay $5 million for a 28-year-old starting center who can rebound, block shots and doesn't require that he be either the first, second or third scoring option? A player who has steadily improved every season he's been in the NBA?

You'd have to think Pat Riley would happily write such a check. Can you envision Blount in the middle on that team? After the chaos of last season in Boston, all Blount wants is to be in a stable, professional environment on a team with a decent chance of winning. Sound like Miami? Or Indiana? Or, in Blount's thinking, ABB -- Anyplace But Boston?

The idea that Blount has choices, good choices, is a testament to his ongoing improvement and work ethic. This is a self-made center. He was a second-round draft pick way back in 1997, No. 55 overall by the Sonics. He had played two uneventful seasons for Pittsburgh to that point.

In other words, how Calvin Boothish do you have to be to be selected 55th in the NBA draft when you're a starting, 7-foot center on a Big East team? He lasted a week in Sonics camp. The Clippers signed him coming out the lockout in 1999. He lasted nine days there.

Despite being drafted in 1997, Blount did not set foot on an NBA floor until 2000, when Rick Pitino signed him for the Celtics. By that time, Blount had spent a year in Yakima in the old CBA, where he put up Pavel Podkolzine numbers for the Sun Kings. He spent another year playing for the Baltimore Bayrunners in the International Basketball League. He's a dues payer whose time has come due.

The one qualifier that will surely accompany every contract discussion is the possibility that Blount will be this year's version of Booth. Or perhaps Jerome James. Or Michael "Yogi" Stewart. All of those players reaped big contracts based on a very short body of work. None has even closely played to that level since signing for the big bucks.

That will always be a potential worry for any team interested in Blount. But if anyone has earned the right to a decent hit, it's this free agent center. In the last three seasons, his point totals have gone from 2.1 to 5.0 to 10.3. His rebound totals have gone from 1.9 to 3.8 to 9.3. His agent, the ever crafty Mark Bartlestein, has likened Blount's continuing improvement to another one of his clients, Kings' center Brad Miller. Their stories are not dissimilar.

Like Miller, Blount was lightly regarded coming out of college. Like Miller, Blount has shown that given the time and the opportunity, he can help and produce. Like Miller, Blount is 7-feet and can run the floor. Further, Blount is a workout zealot who, like Miller, can also rebound and score a little bit.

In short, there has to be a lot of interest in him. He's a certifiable, Central Casting, NBA center. There simply aren't many of them out there, especially in the Eastern Conference. This one is not only out there, he's available. Hopefully for Blount's sake, this is the last time he'll have to go through this.

Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.