The NBA has evolved into a more wide-open, free-flowing game, dominated by quick, penetrating guards and has placed greater demand for quality perimeter shooters. All around the league this offseason, teams swiftly scooped up long-range marksmen – such as Kevin Martin, J.J Redick, J.R. Smith, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Chase Budinger and Marco Bellinelli – to create space and collect three-point baskets.
So, Martell Webster probably couldn’t have picked a better time to be a free agent, especially following a career season in which he finished 12th in the league in three-point shooting percentage at 42.2 percent.
With one of the fastest point guards in the league on their roster, the Wizards made bringing back Webster the top priority in free agency and the competition for his services forced President Ernie Grunfeld to use all of his available resources – as in the full mid-level exception worth $5.15 million in the first year – to make sure he didn’t leave.
“That’s the thing about free agency. Especially when a player is unrestricted, it takes one person to get a deal done,” Grunfeld said at news conference on Thursday at Verizon Center. “A lot of shooters went pretty quickly in the free agent market, and I think there’s a premium on three-point shooters in the league right now, and a lot of them got paid substantial amounts, and we wanted to get a guy we felt fit in very well with what we’re trying to do locked up.”
Webster said he drew interest from several teams when he hit the open market – Cleveland, Milwaukee, New Orleans (“big time,” he emphasized), the Los Angeles Clippers, New York, Portland – but eventually accepted a four-year deal worth about $22 million. It was a stark contrast to last summer, when his contract was bought out after two injury-plagued seasons in Minnesota and he had to settle for a one-year deal worth $1.75 million.
But Webster didn’t get caught up with the attention when he already felt comfortable with what was already developing in Washington, where the chemistry and camaraderie was unlike anything he had experienced in seven previous seasons.
“Even though I only played for this team for one year, it was the best year I feel I had in my career,” Webster said during a conference call to announce his return to the Wizards. “It was hard for me to leave that.”
Webster replaced the injured Trevor Ariza as starting small forward and never gave back the spot, but the Wizards have since made earning minutes at that spot even tougher after selecting Otto Porter Jr. with the third overall draft pick last month.
“It’s going to be very competitive, which I like,” Webster said. “When you have three people like that competing at that position, then that tells you about this team. It’s going to be a battle. We’re going to be fighting for everything, but at the same time, we’re going to be making each other better. Me and Trevor get along pretty well. He’s like my big brother. It’s not like there is any bad blood between us. And with Otto, it’s just kind of teaching him the ropes. We understand that this game doesn’t last forever. You have to pass the torch to the young guys, anyway. That’s what we’re here for, to help teach them the ropes.”
After watching the Wizards’ summer league team practice on Tuesday, Webster met with Porter to offer some advice. “Now that Otto is here, we’ve just got to teach him. That kid’s really good, he’s an observer, he likes to let the game come to him, which is great,” he said. “I like his attitude. I like the way he approaches the game and that he’s going to make mistakes. That’s a good thing, because that’s what builds experience and that’s builds character. He’s very welcoming to the fact that it was a vet talking to him, and is willing to teach him the course of this game, not only on the court, but off the court.”
Webster is recovering from surgery in May to repair a sports hernia surgery but said that while he has been cleared to play, he doesn’t want to exert himself and risk not being healthy for training camp. Wizards athletic trainers Eric Waters and Koichi Soto have devised a program that will strengthen his core and get his entire body in balance.
“I’m not going to just jump into it 100 percent, because that’s not smart. Being out a month and a half of not doing anything, and all of a sudden, jumping into something full go, that’s reckless,” Webster said. “Everything is progression based. It’s a small progression. My main goal…was going to come into training camp in shape and the way that I’m going right now, I see that is a very feasible option for me.”
Webster added that his health, “is not going to be an issue this year.” Grunfeld didn’t sound overly concerned and mentioned how Webster was able to play 76 games last season before going down with an abdominal strain.
“He’s been over his injuries,” Grunfeld said. “Health is always something you can’t determine. He’s only 26 years old even though he’s been in the league a long time, he hasn’t even reached his prime yet.”
With a contract that shows the Wizards’ appreciation for his contributions, Webster is anxious to fulfill his role as an X-factor for the team on both ends of the floor. But also understands that his greatest value comes from the flick of his right wrist and how it forces defenses to stay honest with John Wall attacking the rim.
“He’s got to be able to have people to pass to and when you have shooters like that, it changes the world for our offense and it makes defense pay,” Webster said. “Around the league, those players that are in the same position are the X-factor and teams know that…Those are the players that you need to get over the hump. Without that, your team is lacking a lot.”
Staff writer Gene Wang contributed to this report.