Jan Vesely didn’t know when or if he would ever experience a breakthrough with the Wizards, but he did know that time was running out.
The Wizards put him on an uncomfortable clock last October, when they declined his fourth-year option and decided to send him into free agency a little sooner than expected. Within four months, Vesely discovered that the team that drafted him couldn’t wait that long to get rid of him as Washington dealt the 2011 sixth overall pick to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday in exchange for Andre Miller.
His last contribution came in the final seconds of Wednesday’s 114-97 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Coach Randy Wittman called on Vesely to enter the game with 30.1 seconds remaining. Vesely moved slowly to scorer’s table, removed his warmups and adjusted his knee pads. After Otto Porter Jr. missed a jumper, Vesely tapped the rebound back to Garrett Temple and adjusted his shorts as the clock melted down on the game – and his 2½ year stint with the Wizards.
His time with the Wizards will be remembered for his draft night kiss, his exciting dunks and his air ball free throws.
“Jan showed some signs. He wasn’t consistent enough for us,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said. “I think he has some abilities, as far as athleticism and strength and running the floor and defensive abilities. Offensively, he was very inconsistent for us.”
A source close to Vesely said the 6-foot-11 forward from the Czech Republic was excited about moving on and getting a change of scenery. The next 29 games with the Nuggets could represent his final stretch in the league or possibly kick start his career, which was dying slowly in Washington.
Vesely was averaging just 3.2 points and 3.4 rebounds when the Wizards gave up on him. But his player efficiency rating was a career high 11.57 – an almost four point improvement from last season, when his confidence was at an all-time low.
“I’m coming back happy and ready to play,” Vesely said on the eve of his third season.
But by the time the Wizards said farewell, Vesely’s joy for the game appeared to have also hit a nadir. Despite what he had done in advance of the most critical season of his career – participating in NBA summer league in Las Vegas, shining at Eurobasket in Slovenia and moving his first professional coach to Washington for individual training – Vesely could never turn his preparation into consistent production.
The rare times that he got minutes early in the season, Vesely energized the Wizards with a powerful dunk or a possession-saving, rebound tap back. But when the opportunities became more sporadic, Vesely looked lost and insecure, as if he’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else. The confidence that he spent an entire summer trying to regain was killed once again.
His crooked smile would only come out after shootaround, when he and Martell Webster would stage a trick-shot contest by grabbing balls from the rack and tossing up high archers from behind the basket. He tried to stay engaged before games by forming a circle under the basket with his fellow reserves and bouncing around. He attempted to cheer on his teammates after they made big plays but not playing generally had him dejectedly watching games with his arms folded.
Vesely would usually leave the locker room after practice with his head lowered and buried under a hoodie, with his hands stuck in his pocket.
“He had some good moments for us, but we had some better players [in front of him] and his playing time went down,” Grunfeld said. “I think he got frustrated by that somewhat.”
Coach Randy Wittman’s ever-changing bench rotation kept Vesely guessing and moping. But had he played at a high energy level each night, Vesely might’ve earned more chances despite his limited offensive game. But he had far too many scrub efforts to convince Wittman to just throw him on the floor and hope for the best.
In Grunfeld’s 11 seasons in Washington, John Wall is the only first-round draft choice to become an all-star. Bradley Beal has shown some potential to follow suit. Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin are rotation players and will be restricted free agents this summer. Chris Singleton will be an unrestricted free agent and hasn’t played in weeks. Otto Porter Jr. rarely plays.
Grunfeld traded two draft picks to get veteran players in Antawn Jamison in 2004 and Mike Miller and Randy Foye in 2009. Oleksiy Pecherov and JaVale McGee were both traded before their rookie contracts were completed (Pecherov was a throw-in in the deal for Miller and Foye; McGee yielded Nene). Nick Young was traded for a second-round pick that was used to help Philadelphia take back Eric Maynor’s contract.
And now Vesely has been moved to get Miller.
“He’s a talent,” Nene said of Vesely earlier this season. “If wasn’t talented, he wasn’t going to be in the first round draft and a top pick. C’mon. People not stupid. But he need confidence. He need that fire.”
Maybe Vesely will find it in Denver. The Wizards are done giving him opportunities to find it in Washington.