Washington Wizards, Flip Saunders seeking more accountability from young players


Coach Flip Saunders, left, worked with John Wall one-on-one after Saturday’s practice. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
January 7, 2012

After the Washington Wizards held a light practice at Verizon Center on Saturday, Coach Flip Saunders was working one-on-one with John Wall, teaching him how to develop a floater while shooting over a machine with a high net surrounding the rim to encourage more arch. Wall caught balls shot from the machine and tossed them toward the hoop, with Saunders offering support after each shot that went in.

At other baskets on the practice court, rookie Jan Vesely was shooting jumpers and doing one-man layup sprints with assistant Ryan Saunders, Andray Blatche and Kevin Seraphin were working on post moves with assistant Gene Banks and assistant Sam Cassell was rebounding shots for Jordan Crawford. The fact Blatche was the only player on the court with more than two seasons of experience spoke to the dueling agendas for Saunders and his staff: They have to develop talent while also trying to win games.

The Wizards (0-7) haven’t had any success with the latter, off to the worst start in franchise history as the NBA’s only winless team. But Saunders is ready to take the next step in the former by no longer relying on the obvious crutch of an inexperienced roster with seven players age 23 and younger.

“I told those guys maybe I let them off the hook a little bit, because they are younger and I said, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore,’ ” Saunders said. “Everyone talks about us being young, and maybe we’re doing you a disservice. We have to coach you like a playoff team, like every game is a playoff game and if you’re not playing hard and you continue to make mental mistakes, you’re going to sit down. We’ll give somebody else an opportunity and you’ll go back in. Sometimes, when you have young players, you say, ‘We’re going to let them play through their mistakes.’ But there has to be some consequence for that.”

Saunders said he was taking a cue from his players, who demanded more accountability during a players-only meeting held on Thursday. “That’s something they do want,” he said.

He applied that message during the Wizards’ 99-96 loss on Friday to the New York Knicks, when he pulled Blatche, JaVale McGee and even 14-year veteranRashard Lewis when there was slippage in their play. The result was the most spirited and competitive game of the regular season, as the Wizards led in the final minute for the first time, before all-star forward Carmelo Anthony buried a three-pointer with 15.9 seconds remaining.

“It’s still a loss, at the end of the day,” Crawford said. “We need W’s. Moral victory stuff, that’s for the little kids.”

Saunders said his players have been upbeat and positive during practices but understand the frustrations of taking the painful lumps while figuring out how to play the right way. “Our guys want to win, but you can’t wade around and wait for the other guy to do it. We all — coaches, players, everybody — [have] to be proactive in trying to get a win. And not just get a win, but get in a situation where we can start winning consistently.”

Since the Wizards started the process of rebuilding the roster nearly two years ago, Saunders has often let his players play through their mistakes, biting his upper lip to avoid coming down too hard upon them. He has struggled to find the delicate balance of providing constructive criticism without deflating confidence.

The signs of progress have often been incremental, even as the losses continue to pile up on his career record.

“For me, is it tough? Yes, it’s tough. I’m used to being on a team, winning and in the playoffs,” said Saunders, who arrived in Washington with the seventh-best career winning percentage of any coach in NBA history with at least 900 games coached (.597). He has gone 49-122 in a little more than two seasons with the Wizards.

The Wizards will host Saunders’s former team, Minnesota, on Sunday at 1 p.m. The Timberwolves have six players age 23 and younger, including rookie Ricky Rubio, whom Minnesota selected with the fifth pick the Wizards gave them before the 2009 NBA draft in a trade for the since-departed Randy Foye and Mike Miller.

Saunders’s time in Washington has been filled with unique twists and turns. This season has already presented its share of challenges for Saunders, with Blatche criticizing the play-calling after the first game and Saunders neglecting to thoroughly examine the team roster in Milwaukee before signing a list that omitted Roger Mason Jr. He also was ejected in the first quarter of the Wizards’ 100-92 loss in Boston last week.

After never losing more than five straight games in either Minnesota or Detroit, Saunders is now in the midst of his fourth losing streak of at least seven games with the Wizards, including a franchise-record 16-game losing skid in his first season. He said he has managed not to dwell on the record and focus on both of his responsibilities to the organization.

“I don’t look at the standings. We know where we’re at,” Saunders said. “As a staff and as an individual, it’s hard, because you want to get going. But I think, every day is a work day and trying to work with guys individually, knowing that eventually we’re going to get things going in the right direction.”

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