Wizards Coach Flip Saunders hadn’t been allowed to comment on players or talk about basketball for nearly five months, so he had a lot material stored up when he finally had the chance to address reporters on Friday.
Saunders spoke for nearly 30 minutes, explaining his plans for the upcoming truncated season, his excitement to see the development of John Wall, Andray Blatche and Kevin Seraphin this offseason, and how he hopes to see more maturity from JaVale McGee and Nick Young – if he re-signs.
Saunders rationalized what the team would have to accomplish in order to contend for a playoff spot. Playoffs? Yes, he invoked in the “P” word in his conversation, though the Wizards haven’t won more than 26 games in three seasons. He spoke so much that I decided to break up his responses into two blog posts. Here’s the first part, with his comments on Wall, Blatche, Young, McGee and other topics.
On his expectations for the Wizards: I want to compete for the playoffs. I think that, when I look at our team, we won  games. I said we lost 15 games in the last, with three minutes, where games could have gone either way. We find a way to win 10 of those games, all of a sudden, now you’re up to . Now you think that if you keep injury-free and your guys progress, John progresses, ’Dray is healthy the whole year, JaVale progresses, all these guys kind of progress, you got a healthy Rashard [Lewis], and your rookies come along, then all of a sudden, you’re . . . getting into 40 [wins, based on an 82-game season]. And when you start getting into those late 30s, you’re looking, in our situation, in our league, at opportunity to make a run to get into the playoffs.
When you look at where we were at, you might say that’s not [realistic] but if you look at, and you really break it down to what you have to do, and where we have opportunities to have improvement, cutting down on turnovers and some of those things, those are things I think that are very attainable, are maybe that we can really work on, and some other areas you might not be able to do it.
On if he saw any improvements in John Wall this offseason: I think John, coming in, found it was a lot harder than he thought. He knew he was going to play against great players, but not every night. It’s like an all-star point guard every night, playing against a dominant player. I think that really helped him prepare as far as his focus, as far as how hard he worked and the things he did this summer.
There’s no question he’s got to get better as far as taking care of the basketball. A lot of his turnovers were kind of unforced turnovers, like no one was around him and he got snipered or something and just fell down. He went a little bit too fast sometimes. His maturity, his first year was a great learning experience. He had a great year and I think he’s going to build upon that.
His success is judged not by his personal success, but by the success of our team. That the thing we stressed to him at the end of the year. I think he stressed that a lot to himself as far as working on the things that he though could make the other guys better.
On bringing back Nick Young: Nick was important, as far as what we did, as a team. he’s our best perimeter shooter, consistent shooter. Knock-down three-point shooter and I think, as a team, any time you have assets, you always want to try to retain your assets. Because they help you not only with you have, to use them right now, but also the more assets you have, the more flexibility and ability you have to do things with your team down the road.
On Andray Blatche bouncing back from a disappointing season: He had a good year, it was just his health. He wasn’t healthy. Anytime you have a player that’s not healthy for the beginning, it’s going to always catch up to him. But if you look at what he did . . . a lot of people have been very critical of Andray at times but if you look at him playing in games, we had our best winning percentage when he played. He might not at times have done what you guys wanted him to do or other people, but he was doing things that helped us win as a team.
He’s had a very good summer, he’s healthy, as healthy as he can be. He’s coming in with the right attitude. I think he’s talked more right now about team success to people than he ever has. As you get older you understand that how you’re valued. You’re judged by how your teams win, not by what you do statistically.”
On Blatche needing to become more of a leader: We are young. We have eight guys 23 and under. That’s pretty young. He’s not one of those guys. He’s a veteran player. When you’ve been in the league six years, you don’t have that crutch anymore of saying, ‘I’m a young guy.’ He’s not. I think he understood that people look up to him ans now it a point where he has a responsibility not only to himself but to the team and to his contract.
The one thing [Kevin Garnett] always said was when people looked at him, he wanted them to say he lived up to or exceeded his contract. I really believe Andray, how his mind is right now is the most positive its been in the time that I’ve been here.
On how Young can get better next season: Nick is like ... JaVale. All those young guys, the young players, the biggest thing is they’re not young players anymore. So they have to show the discipline, maturity. Not only on the floor but off the floor. The cinnamon thing, that thing doesn’t cut it. And I think that those are things that really have to, as a team, those are things that we have to have. And defense. And you’re judged by not what you do as an individual but what we do as a team.
Just the team concept. He had, I think, the lowest assists, as far as anybody that averaged over 17 points in the league, history of the league or whatever. Those are the things you can’t have. Just to become a more diversified player. And so he’s taken the one step. When I came here, all he had to do was play well, put it on the floor and try to get shots off. We changed it to the point where last year he became the catch-and-shoot-type shooter and not always have to put it on the floor all the time. Now we’ve got to have the situation where not always shoot it every time he touches it, but he’s also got to make plays for other people. He improved defensively. We found out he was a pretty good on-the-ball defender. Off the ball, he had a tendency to kind of fall asleep at times. We’re finding out where his strengths are. We’ve got to maximize those, and the things that he doesn’t do as well, we’ve got to minimize those and get him better at those things.
On what JaVale McGee needs to work on: Consistency. He has to become more a player of substance than of highlights. He always has his highlights. Which he’s going to have, because he’s that type of player. But I think he has to continue to be more of substance and growth. But a guy that averages over 10 points, close to eight rebounds and about three blocks a game, he’s putting up numbers and doing that. I believe he made a step last year. . . . From a basketball standpoint, to get him to be a better defensive rebounder. He had some trouble against centers who had lower-body strength. As far as a strength standpoint, continue to grow as a low-post scorer. He’s shown signs of being able to shoot that jump hook and do that more. We’re going to eliminate his full-court dribbling, that’s what we are going to do. We’re going to eliminate or he’s going to be sitting with [reporters] at the press table for a while. Because I’ve watched that on film and that’s not good.
On how the Wizards can improve: We need to be better offensively as far as not turning the ball over. That cost us a lot. I always believe that if you don’t turn it over you’re going to have a chance to win. Our tunrovers have to come down. As far as defensively, as far as containing, which is going to help us on rebounding. We lost a lot of games close. We lost 15 games with three minutes or less when the score was three points or less either way. We had a lot of missed free throws, we had a lot of young players on the floor.
Hoping that what they went through a year ago is going to benefit them. If we can lose 15, we can win 10 of those. Then you’re getting into the middle 30’s just off of that. Hoping that the development of your team is going to give you more and you can put yourself in position to be a 40-win team.