What team is this?
• Witnessed its franchise player turn the corner
• Passed on drafting a project for an “NBA-ready” player
• Drew interest from free agents as a promising destination
• Became a trendy pick among pundits as making its way into playoff contention
Is this the Washington Wizards team we all know? Could a doormat and perennial league laughing stock actually reverse its fortune without the aid of a major free agent signing or a heralded prospect?
The Wizards closed last season much like its predecessor: with a lot of hypothetical questions.
What if John Wall had been ready at the start of last year? What if Bradley Beal hadn’t gotten off to a slow start? What if Nene played as much as we’d hoped? What if they weren’t so dismal on the road?
Let’s address the most glaring issue first. On September 18th, news surfaced that the Wizards’ starting center, Emeka Okafor, would be out indefinitely with a herniated disc in his neck. The injury (and uncertainty surrounding it) was serious enough to warrant a press conference from Wizards brass.
After a somewhat overlooked tenure with the New Orleans Hornets, Okafor anchored what became a very respectable defense in Washington last season. Although sometimes stymied by questionable rotations, Okafor produced well on defense, altering shots and posting a very solid 8.8 rebounds per game. He also played in 79 games, his highest total since playing a full 82 games during the 2009-2010 season.
Okafor’s loss will be felt. Sorely. Which dovetails nice into . . .
Front Court Depth
Losing a starter is difficult for any team, but especially those where depth at a position is lacking. Before the 2013-2014 season tips off, the Wizards will have to make a decision about who replaces Okafor as the starting center and how the minutes among the reserves will be divided.
Ignoring the big men brought into training camp this season, Washington has its opening day roster, barring a trade. In the front court, the coaching staff will likely have to choose between Kevin Seraphin and Jan Vesely in the middle. Seraphin (who’s quickly becoming the most charismatic player on the team), brings the most experience, but his offensive game has not developed much since he’s been in the NBA. He also appears to drift at times and has been foul-prone, although the latter issue has been improved a bit.
Then there’s Vesely, who after seemingly falling out of the team’s plans last season, is simply trying to find a role. Vesely voiced his frustration with the Wizards this past summer, sharing details about how the coaching staff had him add weight and play a non-wing role that he wasn’t accustomed to. He also went as far as saying he and his agent contemplated requesting a trade.
Now, after a remarkable summer league and Eurobasket performance, Vesely finds himself poised to find his niche – and it presumably won’t involve many highlight reel dunks that fans first grew accustomed to.
After peeling back the layers of doubt surrounding the Wizards’ big men, you’ll find a nice, promising core of Wall, Beal, and rookie Otto Porter, Jr. Last season, Wall recovered nicely from his injury and became the player we’d all been anticipating since being drafted. He developed a solid jump shot, improved in the half court, and overall became a more disciplined player.
Beal, bearing too many expectations with Wall out, found his touch as the season went on. While he, too, suffered injuries through the last few months of the season, he was able to showcase a great skillset and good chemistry with Wall.
Porter, as odd as it sounds for a number 3 overall pick, will be brought along more slowly. While touted as the “smartest” pick for Washington with their first pick last summer, Porter failed to impress in summer league play, displaying a lack of lateral quickness, poor ball handling skills, and an inability to find his own shot. Porter closed summer league play with a hamstring injury, and as reported from training camp, he’s currently dealing with a hip injury. Fortunately, the Wizards are deeper at the small forward position than anywhere else on the roster. The team can afford to be patient.
• Nene is healthy. A less eventful summer (following retirement contemplation) has the Wizards’ best front court player prepared for a more sustained season. In 61 games last season, Nene shot 48% from the floor and pulled down 6.7 rebounds per game. With Okafor’s timetable for return unknown, Nene can expect as much of an expanded role as his body will allow.
• As mentioned, there is an abundance of small forwards on the roster. With the rookie Porter and newly re-signed Martell Webster in the ranks, Trevor Ariza appears to be the odd man out. Lending credibility to that notion is the team inviting long-time Ernie Grunfeld favorite, Josh Childress to training camp.
• How good can Eric Maynor be? After experiencing a few false starts in his career due to injuries, Maynor is “home” in D.C. and excited about his new opportunity. Can he play off the ball to spell Beal?
In summary, the Wizards should better this year and most certainly a contender for a playoff seed. With the final two seeds from the 2013 playoffs losing core talent, Washington is ripe to slide in and make its mark.
This year’s test will be sustainment.