Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the Washington Wizards’ 2010-11 record and Flip Saunders’s record as its coach. The team was 23-59 this season, not 23-58, and Saunders has gone 49-115 as coach, not 49-114. This version has been corrected.
In many ways, John Wall was ready for his rookie season to be over, with the grind of going from 38 games in college at Kentucky to an 82-game regular season for the Washington Wizards taking a toll on his body.
He’s looking forward to a vacation, to getting home to North Carolina, to resting and relaxing. But he doesn’t want his season to end this early again.
And as players gathered at Verizon Center on Thursday to have their exit meetings with Coach Flip Saunders, stuff belongings from their locker room stalls into extra large garbage bags and say farewell until they reconvene for training camp, Wall was talking about what it would take for the Wizards to expedite the rebuilding process and make the playoffs a reality sooner rather than later.
“I think if we get the right pieces and everybody just come in with the right mind-set, we want to be one of the top five, top six teams in the East,” Wall said of his goals for next season. “It’s not going to be easy. I told y’all that this year it wasn’t going to be easy to make the playoffs, and being hurt, with injuries and trades, really got us down, and losing close games without too much experience. But we want to be a team that’s in the playoffs — like this Saturday coming up — next year.”
Instead of playing this weekend, Wall will be watching up-and-coming prospects at the Jordan Brand Classic in Charlotte. In a season that saw Gilbert Arenas traded and Rashard Lewis, Josh Howard, Nick Young and Trevor Booker all have their seasons end prematurely from injuries, the Wizards (23-59) finished with the fourth-worst record in the league and are guaranteed to have no worse than the seventh pick in the draft lottery May 17.
Wall volunteered to represent the franchise at the lottery if it would help give the Wizards some good luck.
“I think any guy we get, if we get top five or top 10, can really help our team. But that guy has to understand that it’s going to be a learning process for him. There are going to be some ups and downs, but that’s something I can really help him with because I just got through it,” Wall said. “If we just add another guard or wing player or post player, it’ll just help us out, and you’ve got to have two or three pieces to go far. You can’t win it with one player. That’s what teams are doing. They have three guys, and everybody else knows their roles we’ve just got to add certain pieces to the team.”
Wall has already thrown his support behind Saunders and his staff; the staff was given a vote of confidence from owner Ted Leonsis last week on his blog and in a radio interview.
Although Saunders has gone just 49-115 since taking over as head coach, he said he wasn’t worried about his job security based on earlier conversations with Leonsis and President Ernie Grunfeld. “I never had concern, just because of the direction that we wanted to take this team from the beginning, how we went about doing it and the progress that the players were making,” said Saunders, who is owed about $9 million over the next two seasons. “Halfway through the year, we maybe weren’t seeing that progress. It took us some time and we did see the progress.”
Saunders mentioned how Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Young all had the best statistical seasons of their respective careers, while Wall matured into a better leader and fellow rookies Jordan Crawford and Booker improved with increased opportunities.
Young finished as the team’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game and is a candidate for the league’s most improved player, a breakout season that coincided with a contract year. “I’m unemployed right now,” Young joked about being a restricted free agent this summer. “It’s tough, but I felt I put myself in a good position where hopefully I get in a great position. . . . I done seen a lot, being a Wizard. I’m going to keep my options open and hope for the best. The Wizards drafted me, so it’s only right that I’d come back.”
Young missed 16 of the final 22 games with a bone bruise in his left knee and Booker missed the last 11 games with a broken foot, and Saunders said his greatest disappointment this season was not having either player on the court when the Wizards played some of their best basketball in April, when the team went 5-3. Saunders wanted to see how Booker would’ve played hungry NBA Development League refugees Othyus Jeffers and Larry Owens — “the junkyard dogs,” as Saunders called them — and how Young would’ve blended with Wall and Crawford.
Crawford filled in admirably during Young’s absence, tacking a career-high 39 points on Miami and a triple-double on Cleveland. Young and Crawford both said they wouldn’t have a problem playing together.
“I just want to be a key component on a team that’s winning. When you’re winning, you’re relevant again,” Crawford said. “As long as we’re winning, that’s all that’s important.”
The Wizards have also learned the importance of continuity, with their inability to have a consistent lineup contributing to the team’s struggles. The past two seasons, the Wizards have had 39 players.
“It’s tough, but I’ve been here for three years and had three coaches. It’s been a lot of change since I’ve been here. That’s all I’ve been used to is change,” McGee said. “I just feel like when we get a team we can stick with and the chemistry is there, we’ll be fine. I feel like we’re going to come next year with a chip on our shoulders.”