Jason Reid
Jason Reid
Columnist

Hard to build a case the Wizards are drafting the right way

John McDonnell/The Washington Post - Rookie Otto Porter’s signature box score line has been ‘DNP - Coach’s Decision’ for much of the season.

For a team that supposedly wants to build through the NBA draft, the Washington Wizards have done a poor job of it. More evidence surfaced at Thursday’s trade deadline.

Young forward Jan Vesely was the centerpiece of the Wizards’ package to acquire veteran point guard Andre Miller. Although Miller turns 38 next month, the Wizards probably are better with him backing up all-star John Wall, which tells you a lot about the Wizards’ bench. And Vesely disappointed after being chosen sixth overall in the 2011 draft.

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But in shipping out Vesely, the Wizards continued a disturbing trend: They’ve drafted too many players who have failed to develop and wound up dumping them for little in return. If that’s how the Wizards plan to continue building through the draft, perhaps it’s time to switch to an approach heavy on free agents.

At first glance, the three-team trade, in which Washington also jettisoned reserve point guard Eric Maynor, was a “no-brainer,” as Coach Randy Wittman put it before Saturday’s 94-93 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. With the Wizards, though, things are rarely as simple as they seem.

Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld used to trumpet the importance of acquiring first-round picks. Owner Ted Leonsis figured he could replicate the draft success he had with the NHL’s Capitals, and Grunfeld followed orders, loading the roster with first-rounders. They would play, Grunfeld said, and provide the foundation for a brighter future.

Only one problem: Leonsis’s mandate changed. Over the past two seasons, the Wizards have focused on returning to the postseason. Leonsis shelved the playoffs-or-else talk last season after Wall was sidelined the first 33 games because of a knee injury and the Wizards started 5-28. This season, he has no patience for excuses.

Grunfeld and Wittman are both in the final year of their contracts. They’ll be judged, in large part, on whether they deliver what Leonsis wants. If a general manager and a coach have uncertain job statuses, that’s usually bad news for young players. Grunfeld and Wittman can’t concentrate on developing the Wizards of tomorrow, the thinking goes, because they have to win today.

That’s why Vesely, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Chris Singleton — all former first-round picks — spend most of their time on the bench. For the most part, Wittman is rolling with veterans, which is the textbook move in his situation. It’s also shortsighted for the franchise.

In any team sport, the only way to determine whether athletes can succeed is to let them play in meaningful situations. Maybe Vesely, Booker, Seraphin and Singleton will wind up being draft busts. The Wizards, however, didn’t give Vesely enough of an opportunity to prove himself. Barring injuries, the roles of Booker, Seraphin and Singleton probably won’t change much down the stretch in a playoff push.

Then there’s Otto Porter Jr. The former Georgetown all-American’s rookie season has basically been equivalent to a redshirt year in college.

After missing training camp and the first month of the season with a hip injury, Porter had to play catch-up. The Wizards never expected Porter, selected third overall in June, to move ahead of wing forwards Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster this season. But the Wizards plan to lean on Porter more next season, especially if Ariza is not re-signed, so it would make sense to give him something to build on.

Vesely and Singleton waited patiently for opportunities that didn’t come. In October, the Wizards all but declared their first-round picks in 2011 were no longer in their plans when they declined to exercise their fourth-year contract options. In the past, management promoted second-round pick Andray Blatche as a keeper, paid him handsomely and eventually amnestied him. In the Wizards’ history, there’s a long list of stories like that.

“It happens in this league. It happens every year to different guys. It doesn’t matter what pick it is,” Wittman said. “I’m disappointed that we couldn’t do more with [Vesely]. You always want the best for each of your guys.”

Right about now, some of you are probably thinking, “What about Wall and Bradley Beal? They’re draft success stories.”

True. Wall and Beal, however, were considered can’t-miss prospects. Teams truly committed to building through the draft actually help their players improve. Look at the Oklahoma City Thunder. In formulating their philosophy under Leonsis, the Wizards did.

Oklahoma City drafted superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It also picked and developed less-heralded players such as Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson. The Thunder traded for young players with the intent of grooming them for larger roles. Thabo Sefolosha and Jeremy Lamb have grown into theirs well. It’s about constructing a model and sticking with it. After all these years, what’s the Wizards’ model?

Things are better for the Wizards than they have been in years. Management finally dumped the blockheads and replaced them with solid veterans, and it appears Wall and Beal are headed toward stardom together. On a night the team moved within a game of .500, Miller was solid in his first appearance.

The Wizards are enjoying the present, and they should. It would serve them well, though, to think more about their future.

For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.

 
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