Washington Wizards Coach Flip Saunders has always entered training camp with creative themes and strategies to motivate his players. In his first year with the team, Saunders used the phrase “Our Time” to try to spur a group of veterans. In his second year, Saunders went with “Back to Basics” for a young team rebuilding around No. 1 overall pick John Wall.
This season, with the NBA lockout creating a situation in which the opening of training camps coincided with the start of the free agent signing period, Saunders didn’t have his complete roster and he hadn’t come up with a theme for the players to rally around.
“We just don’t have everybody in yet and everything else. Anticipating to see what’s going to happen with some of our guys we still have out there,” Saunders said. “Work in progress.”
The Wizards were still under construction — with a collection of young and inexperienced talent and an incomplete roster minus leading scorer Nick Young, who is still home in Los Angeles waiting for a contract — as they practiced for the first time on Friday night at Verizon Center.
Even after an exhausting 21 / 2 hour practice, the Wizards were busy making another roster adjustment as people with knowledge of the situation confirmed the team was close to acquiring veteran big man Ronny Turiaf from the New York Knicks, who are looking to create room under the salary to sign free agent Tyson Chandler. The deal isn’t expected to be finalized until Saturday, but the Wizards can absorb Turiaf’s $4.2 million salary because they are under the salary cap and aren’t expected to sacrifice any players in the deal, according to sources.
Although it wasn’t an official theme, Saunders sent the message that this season would be about hard work after practice, when he presented Wall with a white hard hat, which featured the team’s new “dc” logo, for being the hardest worker in practice. Saunders gave Wall the option of giving the hard hat to another teammate. Wall grinned, adjusted it and kept it on.
“I thought about it, but I think I played hard today, so I wanted to keep it,” Wall said afterward. “I think I worked hard. That’s the main thing, always giving ourselves on the floor, try to play hard, no matter if we’re winning or losing or in practice.”
The Wizards welcomed rookies Jan Vesely, Shelvin Mack and Chris Singleton and welcomed back veteran Roger Mason Jr., who returned for his second stint with the team after spending recent seasons with the Spurs and Knicks. They all signed shortly before the team hit the court, delaying the practice by an hour.
“It’s a little weird,” Mason said of being back on a young team after spending time with a veteran Wizards squad from 2006 to ’08. “But I’ve got [Andray Blatche] at my locker next to me so we can reminisce a little bit. It’s a new beginning. It’s a new team. We’ve got two young leaders in ’Dray and John Wall. If those guys really develop, we can have a good year.”
Restricted free agents Larry Owens and Hamady Ndiaye did not sign their qualifying offers and were unable to practice. Both are expected to sign on Saturday after the Turiaf deal is complete. To create roster space, the Wizards plan on rescinding the qualifying offer they gave to Othyus Jeffers, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament last July and isn’t expected to come back for at least another month.
The Wizards may have placed retaining Young as their priority in free agency, but he continues to wait for a better offer.
“I don’t worry about guys that I don’t have,” Saunders said. “When guys get hurt or whatever, I think what you do is you relish the guys that you have on the floor. Players know this is a business. They also know that if there’s opportunities — and either guys get hurt or guys aren’t here — they try to take advantage of those opportunities. So we’re going to continue to work with the guys that we have and hope that [the front office] can do what they have to do to try to solidify those other guys whenever that time comes.”
When asked how it felt to start training camp without Young on the floor with him, JaVale McGee said, “Definitely felt weird, but I’m sure he’ll be back.”
Blatche said he didn’t have a problem with Saunders holding back on a rallying cry for the first day. “It might be a good look for us, he’s probably trying to humble us,” he said. “Our main focus right now, man, is just winning. Just getting better, doing whatever it takes to not let what happened last year happen this year. We all on the same page. We all want to work hard and have each other’s back on the court.”