Over the course of his 10-year career in the NBA, new Washington Wizards center Nene has beaten testicular cancer and overcome a devastating right knee injury that saw him tear every major ligament in the joint. In helping to turn around the rebuilding Wizards, owners of the NBA’s second-worst record, the Brazilian import faces another big challenge.
That, though, wasn’t enough to wipe the smile off Nene’s face when he participated in a workout at Verizon Center on Monday. It was his first since being dealt from Denver as part of the three-team trade that sent former Wizards JaVale McGee and Nick Young to the Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, just before last Thursday’s NBA trading deadline.
But the former soccer player from Sao Paolo couldn’t hide that he was “a little scared” upon learning he had gone from the middle of the Western Conference playoff race to a team that is already resigned to the NBA draft lottery. It was only in December, after all, that he signed a five-year, $67 million contract with Denver.
When asked how he found out about the trade, Nene simply responded, “You don’t want to know.” He later alluded to the fact that the NBA can be a “dirty business” when rumors that the Nuggets had buyer’s remorse were brought up.
Nene had only played for Denver since being sent there in a draft-day deal after the New York Knicks selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2002 draft. He had also made Colorado his offseason home.
“It was crazy. It was tough. I don’t like to mention much because I still have no clue what happened,” said Nene, whose wife is from the Denver area. “But I trust my Lord, my God. He put me here and I know when he trades me to somewhere or for somebody, it’s for better things.”
“I’m surprised by it, but it doesn’t matter. I put it behind,” he later added. “Now I’m gonna try to do my best, get ready for a new career and try to be a better man.”
That seemed to be his mission Monday as he introduced himself to teammates during an optional practice that also served as a welcome for newly acquired forward Brian Cook — another piece included in the Nene trade — and swingman Edwin Ubiles, who was signed to a 10-day contract Monday after averaging more than 20 points per game for the NBA Development League’s Dakota Wizards.
The Wizards are hopeful Nene can provide an experienced low-post scoring threat, and a pick-and-roll partner, to complement leading scorer John Wall. Perhaps more significantly, Nene’s five-year contract provides a certain stability to a franchise that has been jettisoning players for more than two years now as it tries to rebuild around Wall.
Nene, whose name is Portuguese for “baby,” is averaging 13.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in 28 games this season, slightly below his averages in both categories last year.
One concern is that he has played in every game during a given season just once during his career, and sat out all but one contest of the 2005-06 campaign when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his right knee on opening night.
He missed the majority of the 2008-09 season after having testicular cancer diagnosed.
Nene has been durable of late, however, including last year when he emerged as one of the more coveted free agents after opting out of another five-year contract. And though the playoffs are now out of the question this year with his arrival in Washington, he wants to be a leader for a roster that features eight players with less than two years of NBA experience.
“I understand God has a plan and the plan is to be here and I’m gonna do my best,” Nene said. “That’s all I can promise: Do everything possible to help the team, to help the young guys.”
With an easy grin, Nene admitted he had never been in Washington long enough to know much about the city.
But he seemed particularly enthused that he will have to endure less snow than he did in Denver, and joked that he likely wouldn’t be fazed by the city’s humid summers after growing up in Sao Paulo.
As for his new team, Nene has been paying close attention to the Wizards only since being blindsided by this trade. But already he sees similarities in the speed of Wall and his old point guard with the Nuggets, Clinton native Ty Lawson, especially considering how much they like to get out on the fast break.
“The only thing is Ty make a layup and [Wall] can dunk,” he said with a laugh.