All Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. could do last season was sit, watch and wait. They wanted to play, thought they should’ve played, but understood that there was little time for rookies to find their way on a Wizards team that delivered on owner Ted Leonsis’s playoffs-or-else ultimatum.
Porter had the least productive season ever by a third overall pick, and Rice didn’t appear in any of the final 71 games for the Wizards. But now, the floor belongs to them.
As the Wizards began a four-day mini-camp to prepare for summer league in Las Vegas, Porter and Rice understand that they will be looked upon to lead in addition to showing they deserve a shot to become rotation players next season.
“It’s going to be fun,” Rice said after the Wizards concluded a nearly three-hour first practice Monday at Verizon Center. “I think we’re both ready because we both been working, and been in places where we were the go-to guys. I think it’ll be an easy transition, just getting out there, seeing what happens.”
The Wizards didn’t make a selection in this year’s NBA draft, considered by many to be among the deepest in recent memory, but Porter and Rice essentially will have second chances at being rookies considering how little they were utilized last season. Despite the lack of playing time, neither player viewed their first NBA season as a waste, and both are eager to show that they learned while being spectators – and that they are better players after a season’s worth of practices, scrimmages, film sessions and early morning lifts.
“I’m very excited about it. It’s something that I didn’t get to do last year. Just watching … it made me want to come back and redeem myself,” said Porter, who called the opportunity “just a comeback. Last year, I got hurt during summer league. That kind of hurt me. This year, I’m looking forward to playing all my games, no matter how far we go. Just trying to use it to get prepared for training camp.”
Porter said he had a “learning season” instead of a lost season, but he clearly started from behind. He strained his right hamstring after his third ineffective summer league game and suffered a right hip flexor two months later that robbed him of training camp.
By the time Porter made his season debut Dec. 6 after a few days of practice, the Wizards were in contention for a playoff spot in a weak Eastern Conference, Trevor Ariza was hogging most of the minutes at small forward and Martell Webster was taking up the rest. Porter didn’t help himself by appearing tentative and lost when Coach Randy Wittman gave him a chance to play. And as he started to gain confidence in his body and his game, Porter found that there were no opportunities.
Ariza is now an unrestricted free agent, and the Wizards are confident they will be able to retain him. But if Ariza finds a more lucrative offer elsewhere – especially from one of the teams that whiffs on LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony – Porter realizes that he might be looked upon for more in his sophomore campaign.
“Whether they do or they don’t” sign Ariza, Porter said, “my mind-set is to continue to work hard.”
Webster also suffered a herniated disk in his back and had a surgery that likely will cost him the first month of the season, leaving open a window for either Porter or Rice to slide in.
Rice was never shy about taking shots, and that confidence was rewarded when he earned a start last season while Bradley Beal was out because of a leg injury. He fractured his wrist shortly thereafter, had surgery, and spent the rest of the year bouncing back and forth from the bench to the NBA Development League.
“No, not really,” Rice said, when asked if he viewed Webster’s injury as a chance to get more minutes. “First thing I was thinking was that I hope he has a speedy recovery and just gets back right. Mindset is really just take it one day at a time. If spots open, we’re definitely going to seize the opportunity. We’re just going to keep working, and that’s up to the coaches and the front office.”
In preparation for summer league, Porter and Rice trained with each other and played several competitive one-on-one games at Verizon Center.
“It’s a battle. We both make each other hungry. We want it,” Porter said. “We want to play on a team and help out as much as we can because last year, we couldn’t. And this year, we think that we can.”
Rice said he noticed a different Porter during their workouts, noting that his ball-handling is much better than just a few months ago.
“He’s much more confident out there,” Rice said. “Always had the mid-range, so that’s still good. He got the step back, that even if you contest, he’s 6-9, so he just shooting over the top of guys, so that’s the main thing. He’s really improved.”
During a scrimmage at the end of practice, Porter moved around looking more self-assured. There was no hesitance as he drove into the lane and he made quicker, more instinctive decisions instead of looking as if he was overwhelmed reading the game. On one play, Porter grabbed a rebound darted up the floor and made a floater in the lane before the defense was ready to react.
“It’s about adapting to your situation and this year, I definitely want to adapt to the summer league games, being more assertive, more aggressive, trying to be a leader on this team,” Porter said. “You got Sam Cassell telling me, ‘You get the rebound, push it yourself. That’s one thing you can do. You’re versatile, you can handle the ball sometimes.’ That’s what I’m going to do. He’s allowing me to play all positions. So I can be familiar with where everybody needs to be and what they need to do. So, I’ll definitely play a lot of different positions.”
Porter and Rice were vocal during the scrimmage with their summer league teammates — which includes NBA players Daniel Orton and Maalik Wayns and Kim English and undrafted free agents Deonte Burton, Khem Birch, Jarrell Eddie and Daniel Miller — looking to them for guidance to help understand Wittman’s schemes. The Wizards will make their debut Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.
“It’s definitely exciting. You always want to be that guy. It’s just fun, being out there the group of guys we have now and we’re just ready to work,” Rice said. “I feel like I’m a better player, all around. I feel like my confidence is higher. We’ve had a summer league under our belt. We just had a whole year underneath our belt. We didn’t get to play as much last year, so all we’ve been doing is just working, just working.”
Said Porter: “We both want to do good. This is our season. The offseason, getting better.”