NEW ORLEANS — If Marcin Gortat had just listened to instructions, Jan Vesely wouldn’t have been on the court to drop a jump hook in the low post or catch John Wall’s just-inside-halfcourt lob and throw down a two-handed dunk in the second quarter of the Washington Wizards’ 102-96 victory Wednesday over the New Orleans Pelicans.
After the Pelicans quickly cut a 12-point lead in half, Gortat said Wizards Coach Randy Wittman wanted him to replace Vesely coming out of a timeout, but Gortat mistakenly told Nene that he was substituting for him.
“I actually put my butt on the line,” Gortat said. “I screw up the sub. I ain’t going to lie — I slip this thing out — I thought it would be good to keep Jan in there. Coach, he look at me like I’m stupid, but I just didn’t hear what he said.”
The way Vesely was playing, Wittman was better off with the 7-foot forward from the Czech Republic on the floor grabbing rebounds, scoring and disrupting the Pelicans’ offense with his length and quickness. He tipped in a Wall miss before the halftime buzzer to extend the Wizards’ lead to 17.
“I thought Vesely was just outworking everybody,” Pelicans Coach Monty Williams said after watching Vesely notch a season-high 12 points with seven rebounds.
Vesely has shuffled in and out of Wittman’s rotation this season and has had to patiently wait for meaningful playing time, which he has finally received while averaging 8.7 points (on 13-of-19 shooting), 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots the past three games. The Wizards have won two straight to improve to 16-17 and will try to extend their road win streak to four Friday night against Indiana (28-7) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“I’m happy for it. I try to stay ready and I just use the chance if I get on the court to do the right things,” Vesely said. “I try to play my game and just don’t put so much pressure on me. Just have fun. My teammates help me a lot with the little things.”
Gortat has assisted Vesely in more ways than his successful substitution blunder against the Pelicans. He became aware of Vesely’s talents at the European championships last summer in Slovenia, where Vesely had 23 points and 14 rebounds in the Czech Republic’s win over Gortat’s Polish team. Since arriving in late October in a trade with Phoenix, Gortat has spent time working out with Vesely, shared meals with him on the road and passed along advice. The two sometimes communicate in Serbian.
“Polish and Czech guys speak Serbian, I know that’s funny,” said Vesely, “but we hang out together and if I do some good move, he come right to me and say good move or whatever. It helps me a lot to have him around.”
Vesely’s passivity on offense has often flustered his coaches and teammates, but Gortat has urged him to be more aggressive.
“I told him he got to come out there and have fun. Second of all, he got to stop swinging the ball, got to stop passing the ball, got to stop peeking at the basket and try to score,” Gortat said. “You need a guy that is going to bring a lot of energy, you’ve got to look at him. If you’re expecting some different things, shooting from the outside or hitting, fighting underneath the basket, you might be looking somewhere else. But he’s got to prove it. It’s a really important year for him, I’m glad he came out and played his butt off.”
The Wizards declined the fourth-year option worth $4.2 million for next season on Vesely, the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft, but still have interest in bringing him back next summer, according to a league source with knowledge of the situation. This latest stretch for Vesely comes after not playing more than 10 minutes in any of the previous four games, though he was to blame for one of those short stints after fouling out of a blowout win over Detroit in just eight minutes — the fastest disqualification for the franchise in at least 28 seasons.
“He’s got good activity and that’s what he’s got to continue to do and he can be a big help for us,” Wittman said when asked what has led to Vesely’s increased playing time.
Vesely’s confidence has been growing with more opportunities and was evident in New Orleans, where he emerged from the huddle during one timeout, flashed a crooked grin in the direction of teammate Eric Maynor and winked. And that was before he spoke up to Wall and set up the highlight alley-oop.
After watching Wall beat all of his teammates up the floor and pull up for a one-on-three jumper, Vesely advised him to slow down because he would always be trailing for a lob or putback. A few possessions later, Wall spotted Vesely on the wing as he crossed half court, jumped off one leg and tossed the ball to a place where only Vesely could catch it.
“I feel I can put it anywhere with him,” Wall said of Vesely. “No matter who’s running with him or not, once he gets that head of steam, I feel he’s one of the more athletic guys in the league.”
In the first half of Tuesday’s 97-83 win over the Charlotte Bobcats, Vesely dazzled with his physical gifts when he stole the ball, raced up the court, took off one step inside the foul line and dunked.
“When I took off, I thought I would miss it, so when I dunked it, I was happy,” Vesely said.
The impressive slam came in the presence of Bobcats owner and former Wizard Michael Jordan, whose foul line jams are part of his lore. Vesely has seen the highlights. “I tried it when I was younger, I was 20 or 19, and I did it a couple of times,” Vesely said.