Jan Vesely, after trade to Nuggets from Wizards, is hoping to hold on in NBA


Jan Vesely, left, was the sixth overall pick by the Wizards in 2011. Now is he playing out the string for Denver? (David Zalubowski/AP)

Jan Vesely finished a recent practice with the Denver Nuggets by running to the corner just off the court, well behind the basket and near the expensive baseline seats at American Airlines Arena, to attempt his favorite trick shot. Vesely loved to take the shot, which requires an understanding of angles and geometry — as well as considerable luck — after shoot-arounds during his days with the Washington Wizards, relishing each make and shrugging after each miss.

His first attempt this afternoon was wide left. His second attempt hit the front of the rim, close enough that Vesely beckoned teammate Timofey Mosgov to throw him a basketball.

“C’mon, Russian,” Vesely shouted before missing again with another air ball to the left. Mosgov gave him the ball once more, and Vesely finally surrendered when his attempt failed to clear the backboard.

Vesely doesn’t know how many more times he will get to take that crazy shot in NBA arenas. The Wizards gave up on him at the Feb. 20 trade deadline, sending him to Denver in exchange for Andre Miller and ending a 2½-year stint that was filled with stammers and stalls but no liftoff.

With 16 games left in the Nuggets’ season, Vesely is clinging to his one last shot before becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer. “Everybody says you have to play for a contract. I don’t look at it that way,” Vesely said. “I just try to help the team as much as I can and, when I get the opportunity, show that I can play. I take it as a new start for me. I’m going to do my best to stay in the league as long as I can.”

The Wizards drafted the 7-foot forward from the Czech Republic sixth overall in 2011. His time in Washington was highlighted by a draft-night kiss with his girlfriend at the time and a few sensational dunks, but it was overshadowed by constant struggles with his confidence, adventures at the free throw line and a failure to provide consistent production.

“I was the sixth pick of the draft. I didn’t get much time to play and to prove that I can be in the league,” Vesely said. “Sometimes I got to play, I play all right, and the next game, I don’t play. That got me confused sometimes, but that’s part of life. You have to be ready all the time, even if you play 30 minutes and the next game you don’t play.”

The past month in Denver hasn’t been much different. Vesely is averaging 3.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in nine games with the Nuggets — numbers similar to those with the Wizards — and dealing with a few nights spent strictly as a spectator. The Wizards (35-31) will reunite with Vesely on Sunday at the conclusion of a four-game West Coast road trip. Washington has gone 9-3 since acquiring the 37-year-old Miller to back up John Wall.

Vesely said he wasn’t desperately seeking a change of scenery, though he could never find a spot in Coach Randy Wittman’s rotation. He was caught somewhat off guard when he went home for lunch after a workout at Verizon Center and his agent called to tell him the Wizards were about to trade him.

“Actually, I was,” Vesely said about being surprised by the trade. “I didn’t get much time to play in Washington. I was working hard, but things didn’t work out.”

Nuggets General Manager Tim Connelly, a former Wizards executive, took a chance on a 23-year-old big man with incredible athleticism but limited skills. Vesely threw everything he could find into a suitcase and caught a flight to join the team in Chicago within hours of the deal’s completion. The Nuggets are missing former Wizard JaVale McGee, who is done for the season after having surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left tibia, and were relying on a big-man rotation that featured Mozgov, J.J. Hickson and Kenneth Faried.

“It’s been tough because we have basically four guys that have been here, been in the rotation,” Nuggets Coach Brian Shaw said. Vesely has “done well in the opportunities that he’s been called on, with his energy and his athletic ability running the floor. When we get down to these last games of the season, he’ll see more time so we can really take a look at him and see what he can do and what he can’t do.”

Vesely thought he would get that chance in Washington this season after participating in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, shining at the European championships in Slovenia and moving his first professional coach, Miro Alilovic, to Washington for individual training. With his playing time becoming more sporadic, the confidence Vesely spent an entire summer trying to rebuild came crumbling back down.

Vesely said he is enjoying his time in Denver, where he doesn’t have much to do other than work on his game with Alilovic. When asked what he could’ve done to stay in Washington, Vesely replied: “Actually, I don’t know. Sometimes when you don’t get the playing time, you don’t have the confidence to play. I think that was also a problem. Sometimes I didn’t play with the confidence. It’s hard to stay ready.”

Vesely started his career in Europe, starring at Serbian power Partizan Belgrade for three seasons before coming to the United States. He surely will attract interest from teams overseas but doesn’t want to contemplate his future until this season is over next month.

“I’m going to take a rest, put everything on the table, all opportunities for where I can go next year — Europe or the NBA. I’m not saying I want to stay 100 percent here,” Vesely said. “I will look at it as an opportunity, where I can play and all of these things. But that’s a question after the season, what offers I will get. I just want to finish this season on a good note and just play how I can. We’ll see where I end up.”

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