Jan Vesely gets injured while helping Denver hurt Wizards’ playoff position

March 24, 2014
Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat, left, of Poland, wrestles away the rebound from Denver Nuggets forward Jan Vesely, of the Czech Republic, in the third quarter of an NBA basketball game in Denver on Sunday, March 23, 2014. The Nuggets won 105-102. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) What am I swiping at? (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Jan Vesely is two time zones away, a few thousand more feet above sea level, exploring the opposite conference and focused on salvaging a career that remained grounded for 2½ years in Washington. But he still keeps track of the Wizards and checks the box scores each night to see how his former teammates fared.

“Of course, I still follow them,” Vesely said recently. “I been there for three years, you can’t forget that.”

Vesely also can’t forget the many nights he went home to family, moping about not playing and waiting for an opportunity that never came. So, when he was reminded two weeks ago about his upcoming game against the Wizards, Vesely cracked a smile and said with a laugh, “Oh yeah, I’m going to [expletive] them up.”

As the national anthem played on Sunday, Vesely stood across players in Wizards jerseys for the first time in his career. And before leaving in the third quarter with a  left rib cage contusion, Vesely had 10 points – two shy of his season high – in just 14 minutes and helped the Nuggets stun his former team, 105-102 at Pepsi Center.

The night before he faced the franchise that drafted him sixth overall in 2011, Vesely had dinner in Denver at the Brazilian restaurant Fogo de Chao – the personal favorite of Nene – with Marcin Gortat, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton. And, yes, Vesely picked up the check.

“He’s the sixth pick,” Seraphin said. “I can’t compete with that kind of money.”

Believing that he never got a fair shot in Washington, Vesely has also been used sparingly in Denver since the Nuggets acquired him on Feb. 20 in exchange for Andre Miller.

“I can’t say I wanted it,” Vesely said, recently, about the trade from Washington. “Before, in January, I was talking about maybe getting traded with my family and my agents and I was asking to do it, but the day before the deadline, I talked to my agent and he said nothing is going on. I just put it on the side and the next day, they trade me, so it was crazy.”

Though he is averaging fewer minutes, points and rebounds than he did with the Wizards, Vesely said he hasn’t had a difficult adjustment to his new mountainous surroundings. “It’s nice. I like it here,” Vesely said. “This city is cool, nothing much to do, but you have nice restaurants. Teammates help me a lot to fit in as soon as possible. I played with JaVale and they have a lot of Europeans, so it was easy to fit in, so I’m enjoying my team here.”

Vesely brought his first coach over from Slovenia, Miro Alilovic, and continues his individual workouts to stay prepared for whenever Nuggets Coach Brian Shaw calls on him to contribute. He didn’t appear in either of the previous two games because of a coach’s decision but was given a break with the Nuggets losing another big body for the season.

Former Wizard JaVale McGee has been out most of the season with a broken left leg and one of his replacements, J.J. Hickson, went down Friday with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.

Shaw said the injuries will give them a chance to take a closer look at the 7-foot third-year forward from the Czech Republic. And Vesely was fired up from the moment he entered the game for Timofey Mosgov with 4 minutes 38 seconds left in the first quarter.

The first time he got the ball inside, Vesely made a swift and decisive move toward the basket, something he has rarely done throughout his career – but he plowed right through Drew Gooden for an offensive foul.

Vesely eventually settled down after anticipating a pass from John Wall, picking it off and setting up a three-pointer by former Wizard Randy Foye.

On the next possession, Vesely intercepted another Wall pass and chugged up the court for a breakaway two-handed dunk. Vesely scored six points and had three steals in his first 12-minute stint on the floor.

Not accustomed to playing that many continuous minutes – he played at least 12 minutes just two times this month –  a gassed Vesely was asking for breather.  Vesely shot 5 for 9 from the field, but three of his misses came on one possession, when he flubbed a layup, a tip-in and another layup. That possession also accounted for three of his four rebounds.

“I think Jan did a great job helping us inside,” said Nuggets guard Evan Fournier, a native of France. “He was very active running and rebounding and he stepped up. When you have an opportunity you have to take it, and that’s what he did.”

Shaw spoke of Vesely’s limited offensive ability before the game, but he caught both teams by surprise when he glided down that lane and made a reverse layup. He later tied the game at 68 when he caught a pass near the foul line, took a dribble and dunked.

Vesely’s night ended on the next possession when fell for a pump fake from Gooden and got injured while committing a foul.

“That’s tough because his whole side was exposed when he went up for that pump fake,” Shaw said. “He had no way of protecting himself.”

The Nuggets couldn’t provide an update for when Vesely will return. They only have 12 games left on the season, so Vesely didn’t have many opportunities anyway. But for one night at least, Vesely was able to help his new team get a win and also knock his old team down to two games behind Brooklyn for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

“Everybody knows how it is when you play your ex-team, you want to win and you want to perform and that’s what he did,” Gortat said. “He played well.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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