Jan Vesely was just 16 when he left behind the mother he calls his best friend, and his sister, in the Czech Republic to go to a country where he didn’t know the language or culture — just so that he could play a game his father taught him to play only four years earlier. His family came to visit him every two weeks in Slovenia and called or communicated via Skype to alleviate any homesick feelings, but within a year, Vesely already had his sights set on going farther away: to America and the NBA.
No longer needing his mother, Ivana, to nudge him along, Vesely has matured into a 21-year-old man who is ready for his next challenge, his dream brought to fruition when the Washington Wizards selected him sixth overall in Thursday’s NBA draft. After one year of playing in Slovenia, and then Serbia for the past three years, Vesely believes that he has been prepared for some of the challenges that will await him in Washington.
Leaving home “was difficult, but my family gave me support,” Vesely said during his introductory news conference on Monday. “Now, I’m alone for five years, I think I can live here. It will be difficult, but outside of basketball, it will be okay.”
Vesely now finds himself in Washington, a place that he had never seen before Sunday, when he walked around the White House; saw the Capitol and the Washington Monument; and had a meal at Café Milano with his girlfriend Eva Kodouskova, his sister Hanna, and his agent, Arn Tellem. “It’s a very beautiful city. I’m happy to be here,” he said. “It looks like a European city. I like it. I like very much.”
The Wizards have liked Vesely for nearly two years, and considered taking him last year before they won the lottery and Vesely decided to stay at Partizan Belgrade for one more season to assume a larger role with the team and expand his game. The situation worked out well for both sides, with the Wizards now getting a player they’ve long targeted and Vesely joining a young team that likes to get out and run the floor.
“It was my motivation to be in Washington and play with those great young players. We have a lot of work to do. I think we can work hard,” said Vesely, who was nicknamed “Flying Czech” in Serbia for his above-the-rim theatrics. He compares his game to that of Utah’s former all-star forward Andrei Kirilenko. “[Kirilenko] is athletic. He can run the floor. He can play defense. He can block the shots. My game is similar to him.”
Coach Flip Saunders said that the addition of Vesely should make the team — which already features slam dunk contest runner-up JaVale McGee — a staple for highlight shows. Saunders expects Vesely to quickly find a role on the Wizards. “With our style of play and the things that we like to do, I feel like he should fit into our rotation. There’s no question,” Saunders said. “He’s probably built more for our game than he is Europe. I think the biggest thing when you notice him and you watch him play is the aggression he goes to the basket with. Guys can make spectacular plays, but he goes relentless.”
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said the addition of Vesely — and draft picks Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack — goes in line with the plan he made since purchasing the franchise last year: to change “the core personality and makeup of the team to be tough.” He added that the organization would do its part to help smooth Vesely’s adjustment off the court.
“We have lots of experience through the hockey team with bringing players in and making them feel welcomed and comfortable and assimilate them culturally, and I think we will celebrate this diversity and make sure that the Czech Republic is well-represented,” said Leonsis, whose Capitals already feature a goalie from the Czech Republic, in Michal Neuvirth. “It’s incumbent on us as owners and in management to make sure that these young players not only adjust, adapt and flourish from the sports side but also socially, and I think we will do our best to make Jan and his family feel comfortable. I think if players feel comfortable and enjoy everything around the city that their game flourishes.”
Daniel Kostoval, deputy chief of mission for the Embassy of the Czech Republic, and Martin Pizinger, embassy press officer, were both in attendance at Monday’s news conference. Kostoval said the embassy would assist Vesely in getting acclimated in Washington.
Vesely’s English is improving, but he said that he learned to speak fluent Serbian in just two months. “I relate to him,” said Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, who moved to the United States from Romania at age 9, without speaking a word of English. “There is always an adjustment period. Not only for foreign players but for college players when they come to the NBA. His game is very well suited for the NBA, which is an up-tempo game, which uses a lot of athleticism. You get up and down the floor and anytime you play with the type of energy and intensity that Jan plays with, that will transfer well to any level.
“He’s confident,” Grunfeld said. “I think he’s going to have an outstanding career.”