Jan Vesely had thrown down similar dunks before — in raucous gyms in Serbia, on the Verizon Center practice court and, on rare occasions, in NBA arenas — and he often responded to those jams with outbursts of emotion. But when Vesely had a two-handed putback slam during the Czech Republic’s win over Poland at the European championships in Slovenia last month, his excitable scream and playful chest bumps with teammates represented a reboot to one longtime observer.
“To me it was a big release of some of the emotion that he had pent up inside for a couple of months or so. From that point forward, he played free, he played loose, he was attacking,” said Czech Republic assistant coach Mike Taylor, who also serves as head coach of the Maine Red Claws of the NBA Development League. “It was almost like a relief.”
Humbled by a disappointing sophomore campaign with the Washington Wizards, Vesely was a beaten-down man trying to piece together his shattered confidence at the start of the summer. He took a month off from the game to spend time with family and friends back home, then began the process of rebuilding the player who was selected by the Wizards with the sixth overall pick in 2011.
“To realize that you are on the bottom and you have to get back,” Vesely said this week of his offseason motivation, “that’s the only thing I was thinking.”
After taking baby steps through Wizards summer league in Las Vegas, Vesely represented his native country at the European championships, where he was a high-energy jumping jack.
“Finally, I just enjoy basketball again,” the 7-footer explained.
Vesely played multiple positions for the Czech Republic, ran the floor with abandon, rebounded and was a dominant force with few plays called for him, eliciting chants of “Honza,” his nickname, from the crowd.
“We just said, ‘We have got a really athletic, really talented player and we’ve got to try to get the most out of him,’ ” said Taylor, an American who has assisted the Czech national team the past four years. “He knew we were really relying on him. That self-confidence carried over. Once he felt comfortable, he had some outstanding performances.”
Vesely only had a few days of rest before he returned for training camp in Washington, where an opportunity to contribute awaits with Emeka Okafor sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disk in his neck. Okafor’s arrival and steady play last season helped push Vesely out of the rotation and led to his confusion and frustration.
“I came to the NBA from a team where I was a leading player, so it’s hard to get down after that,” Vesely said. “Right now I have to prove myself I can play here. This is my third season now. I’m getting used to it. . . . First year was hard. Second year was bad. It takes time but I think I’m right where I have to be.”
Vesely needs to make the most of the next few weeks, with the Wizards having until Oct. 31 to pick up his fourth-year option for the 2014-15 season. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld hasn’t revealed his leanings, but Vesely is just 23 and teams are often willing to take more chances on big men because they often develop at a slower pace.
“I’m not thinking about it right now,” Vesely said of his option, “so whatever happens, happens.”
After a recent practice, the Wizards’ players grabbed a soccer ball and decided to have a little fun. Vesely bounced it on his head several times and also kicked it so hard that the ball got trapped high in the bleachers.
Without thinking, and without shoes, Vesely began climbing up the bleachers to recover the ball as his teammates begged him to let it go. But a determined Vesely reached the top and stretched out his arm. He wasn’t going to give up on the ball, just as he hadn’t given up on himself.
“You know, it’s natural for a player to get frustrated if you’re committed and you’re working hard and you’re trying your best to build your career,” Taylor said. “Everybody runs into some ups and downs. There’s always some highs and some lows. It’s how you handle those different situations. I like Jan a lot and I’m really, really rooting for him.”