Nene has been labeled a number of things during his 12-year NBA career, from injury-prone due to the 278 games he’s missed, to survivor after overcoming a bout with testicular cancer that served to strengthen his faith. But the label that amuses the Washington Wizards forward the most is, as he calls it, “the grump guy.”
“Everybody so friendly and I’m the grumpy old guy complaining. That’s the way they say about me,” a smiling Nene said recently. “I think I don’t need to change because someone need to say the right thing at the right time. I always going to look for the best, for the good of my teammates. Always. That’s me.”
The grumpiness surfaced following an early-season loss to San Antonio, when Nene said “our young guys need to get their heads out of their butts and play the right way.” It then boiled all the way over in the postseason, when the 6-foot-11, 250-pounder wrapped his gargantuan hand around the head of Chicago’s Jimmy Butler during an altercation, resulting in his suspension for Game 4 of their first-round playoff series.
But it’s those times when Nene’s health cooperates and his sometimes Hulk-like temperament is positively channeled that the Wizards forward is worth the $13 million he’s due to make in each of the next two seasons, displaying the physical play and soft midrange touch that gave the Bulls fits as well as the sharp yet fruitful encouragement that helped pave the way for Washington’s playoff run.
“He’s had a lot of ups and downs in his career with injuries and life experiences and some things we go through that make us want to quit or step away from basketball,” said Wizards guard Andre Miller, who played with Nene in Denver. “He still has that passion for basketball, wanting to compete, wanting to win. I’ve always told him that he’s one of my favorite players that I’ve played with in my career.”
After struggling with plantar fasciitis for most of the two previous seasons, Nene elected to rest his body for the majority of last summer. Despite missing two of the first three games of the 2013-14 campaign, the plan appeared to work, at least from an individual standpoint. On five occasions, Nene scored at least 20 points and his rebounding was at its best since joining the Wizards midway through the 2011-12 season, as he averaged 6.8 during the month of December.
Yet the inevitable struck on Feb. 23, just a day after he dropped a season-high 30 points and in the middle of one of the Wizards’ best stretches of the year. Down Nene went with a sprained MCL in his knee that would sideline him for 22 games and test the resolve of a frontcourt featuring newcomer Marcin Gortat, backup Trevor Booker, who had fallen in and out of the rotation, and Drew Gooden, who hadn’t played in the NBA for nearly a year before signing a 10-day contract with the Wizards.
But if Nene was going to get hurt –and that’s become the expectation among most these days — it came at what proved to be an opportune time. Gortat and Booker both noted how the extra playing time helped build their confidence, bolstering the depth and options for a Wizards team surging toward the playoffs. By the time Nene returned for the final two weeks of the regular season, the Wizards had already locked up their first postseason berth and were rolling on momentum that would produce wins in eight of their next nine games.
“We knew what we were capable of and we believe in each other, we trust each other,” Nene said. “We’ve had a lot of tough moments but those tough moments make us strong. I believe a lot of bad things happen for our good to have great season compared to all those years.”
Nene wasted little time in exorcising those demons of years past, putting on a clinic in the high post against Chicago Bulls forward and Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah with a midrange shot that opened the floor for his teammates. In the three wins he played in during that series, Nene averaged 20.3 points on 61.7 percent shooting to go with 3.3 assists, highlighting his sound passing out of the post.
But while the playoff intensity brought out the best in Nene, it also brought the grumpiness. While the confidence he built from Games 1 and 2 was there, his shooting touch wasn’t in Game 3, leading Nene to fall prey to his tendency to force shots in the lane when the space isn’t necessarily there. It’s the reason why he shot just 50 percent at the rim during the playoffs and led to the frustrations that suspended him for Game 4 and neutralized him in the next round against Indiana, when David West was able to match his physicality and versatility.
Now following a season he calls “a blessing,” Nene plans to again rest up before joining the Brazil national team for this summer’s FIBA World Cup. During this stint, which shouldn’t yield heavy minutes for the 31-year-old, he’ll have the opportunity to rediscover a free-throw shooting touch that inexplicably dropped from 72.9 percent in 2012-13 to 58.3 percent this past year.
And while it remains to be seen how Gortat’s free agency will play out, excitement and optimism looms over the Wizards’ frontcourt situation that stands to have two complementary pieces in the bruising Nene and the consistent Gortat, who has had a much healthier career than his predecessor, Emeka Okafor.
“Bright future,” Nene said. “But how it’s going to be one hundred percent, that doesn’t depend on my words. It depend how we trust, believe and engage our team.”