The red, white, and blue colors that served the Washington Bullets so well for over three decades are back, but the Wizards goal is not to live in the past. The team’s slogan is “new traditions’’ and in that sense, in the colors of old, a new journey with an NBA title as its stated destination is underway.
This is team built for speed and built for the future. With eight players under the age of 23 the Wizards are sticking to their plan to build through draft, develop their young players, and then have salary cap flexibility for the future. Winning games is still the goal, but there are greater goals.
“You want to have flexibility if you can. It is not a great free agent market and so you don’t want to tie up too much money now, Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said before the season. “We like the balance we have right now. We want to make sure we give our young players an opportunity to get out there and play and get minutes and develop.”
Once the young corps of this Wizards team has developed, then the possibility of competing in the free agent market becomes more intriguing. For now team owner Ted Leonsis is reminded of the founder of the Ferrari race car company and his decision to remove rear view mirrors from his drivers’ cars.
“When he (Ferrari founder) was asked why he removed the mirrors, he said I don’t want anyone looking back. I want my drivers only looking forward,” Leonsis noted. “I am very excited and positive about what we are building here.”
With this emphasis on team construction and building the right way, it made sense the abbreviated 2011/2012 training camp opened with a hard hat added to the team’s equipment. The hard hat was the reward for the hardest working player after each practice. In short to go with the style, there is also a premium being placed on substance and good old fashioned hard work.
John Wall earned the first hard hat of training camp as he looked to build on a rookie season when he averaged 16.4 points and 8.3 assists over 69 games including 64 starts. In addition Wall found early success at a time when the NBA is loaded with quality point guards.
“It was a lot harder than he (Wall) thought,” said Wizards’ head coach Flip Saunders. “He knew he could play against great players but maybe not every night I think that helped him really prepare with his focus this summer and how hard he worked. He has to get better at taking care of the basketball. With John a lot of his turnovers were unforced because maybe he was going to fast at times.”
Often the biggest challenge for a rookie is adjusting to the speed of the NBA game. With better competition, decisions have to be made faster. While decision making is always a part of a point guard’s maturation, in Wall’s case it is more varying speeds and in many cases learning to slow down. “His success is judged not by his personal success, but by the success of the team,” Saunders added. “That’s something we stress to him at the end of last year. I think he has stressed that to himself and he has worked hard on what he needs to do to help others get better.”
Wall is the focal point of a Wizards’ sophomore class that seized opportunities with playing time last season. Guard Jordan Crawford was an instant hit after his arrival in a trade with Atlanta and he quickly showed why he was a first round selection of the Hawks. In the games he started, Crawford averaged 19.3 points, 4.7 assists and 3.6 rebounds.
“He is such a great scorer and he has the ability to play the two spot,” said Saunders of Crawford. “But he has the ability to play the one and back up and John and when he does that he can’t have the mentality that he is going to try and score every time he touches it.”
Also among the sophomores, forward Trevor Booker impressed fans with his “hard hat” approach and averaged 10.2 points and 7.6 rebounds in 14 starts. Kevin Seraphin, drafted in the first round after playing professionally in his native France, is physically stronger and mentally more confident after successfully using his rookie season to adjust to a new league and a new country.
Forward Andray Blatche and center JaVale McGee are entering critical points of their young careers. Blatche has increased his scoring and rebounding average in each of his first six seasons. Often unnoticed was that Blatche played much of last season with nagging injuries, but when healthy averaged over 23 points and 10 rebounds in the final last eight games
“A lot of people have been critical of Andray,” said Saunders. “But if you look at games in which he played we had our best winning percentage when he played. He has talked more about team success than he has ever in the past. He has the right attitude.
McGee appeared in a career high 79 games in 2010/2011 and thrilled a national audience with his spectacular dunks at the NBA All-Star weekend. With his size and athleticism McGee can deliver the extraordinary, but in his development the focus is more on the ordinary.
“He has to become a player more of substance than highlights,” Saunders pointed out. “He always has his highlights, because that is the type of player he is. He has to continue to grow and we are seeing signs with an average 10 points, 8 rebounds and close to 3 blocks a game.”
There will also be the opportunity for draft class of 2011 to make an impact. Long and athletic players who can guard multiple positions are essential in today’s NBA and first round picks Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton provide those qualities. Second round pick Shelvin Mack will help back up Wall at the point.
In a pre-season game against Philadelphia at Verizon the future came alive. That’s when Shelvin Mack exploded off a Chris Singleton screen and then floated a pass to Jan Vesely who finished with a dunk. Vesely had made a cut on the baseline and came flying in to receive the pass from Mack who was driving down the lane.
“We are ahead of schedule. We brought in more young gifted players and more high draft picks in a faster amount of time and got our payroll and salary cap in a really good place, Leonsis said. If are draft this year yields good results and our cap space in the out years is manageable, we could end up in two to three years with a really great team. Not just a good team, but a great team that we can keep together for a long time.”