As he walked out of the locker room after practice on Tuesday, Jan Vesely was instructed to conduct an interview in front of the blue Washington Wizards banner that hung in the hallway. Vesely leaned against the banner, then hopped away and shouted, “I don’t want to talk in front of this.”
Vesely then hunched down, lifted up the banner and revealed a huge, framed picture of him flying toward the rim. “I want to talk in front of this,” Vesely said with a laugh.
Feeling buried for much of his time in Washington, Vesely has yet to provide anything on the court close to the amount of excitement he generated on draft night in 2011, when the Wizards took him with the sixth overall pick.
His future in the NBA — let alone in Washington — became even more murky last week when the Wizards let the Halloween deadline pass without picking up his fourth-year option worth $4.2 million. Yet Vesely is still trying to stay upbeat amid the uncertainty, even with his career in the same holding pattern.
“The toughest part is I’m not playing. I don’t get a chance,” Vesely said when asked about adjusting to the NBA after arriving from Partizan-Belgrade in Serbia. “Of course, I have something to prove. I have to stay ready, wait for my chance and if I have my chance, to grab it.”
Vesely started the Wizards’ first two preseason games, grabbing a combined 21 rebounds, but his passivity on the offensive end and lack of physicality on the defensive end reduced him to being a bit player the rest of the way. In the first three games of the regular season, Vesely and rookie Glen Rice Jr. are the team’s only healthy players yet to make an appearance.
“His time is going to come. No question. That’s what I’ve told him. When things aren’t going good or something, I’m going to change things or look at things and we’ll do that with Jan,” Coach Randy Wittman said ahead of the winless Wizards’ game in Philadelphia on Wednesday. “It could be [Wednesday], it could be down the road, but it’s going to come.”
Even before deciding to make him a free agent next summer, the Wizards sent the 7-foot Vesely the most obvious message that it lacked trust in his development when they acquired veteran center Marcin Gortat from Phoenix in exchange for Emeka Okafor and a first-round pick.
“Start of the season, I don’t play much but I feel much better.” Vesely said. “It’s hard coming after this summer, coming after Eurobasket and I play like I play, and come here and just doesn’t happen. It’s part of this job. You have to step back sometimes when coach wants to try some things with other guys.”
Vesely invested more than just his time and effort into having a productive summer. In search of the spark that helped him reach the NBA, Vesely hired Miro Alilovic, the coach who brought him to Slovenia from the Czech Republic at age 16.
Alilovic trained with Vesely last summer in Los Angeles and helped him rediscover the joy that was absent during two frustrating seasons in the NBA. Vesely had a decent showing in summer league, and had what appeared to be a breakthrough performance in the European championships, which prompted Vesely to invite Alilovic to stay with him this season.
“He’s here with me, not only for basketball stuff, but to help me stay focused and more ready,” Vesely said of Alilovic. “The toughest was last year, I was here almost by myself and it was just hard to come home and just think about it, you don’t have anybody to talk about that thing, that’s a professional. My family was there to support me, but . . . he understands basketball. It’s like mental support.”
At the end of last season, Wittman said Vesely’s greatest obstacle was overcoming a lack of confidence. Wittman hasn’t noticed that same problem, despite Vesely still not playing.
“He’s very good where he’s at. I like where his mind is right now, I really do,” Wittman said. “And him not playing, he’s handled that great and I think that’s a step in the right direction. Last year, there were a lot of young guys in and out of the lineup. That’s hard.”
Vesely will now be a free agent sooner than he perhaps expected but said he won’t let that hijack his focus. “I’m not thinking about that right now, what I will do after this season. The season is long and we just started,” Vesely said. “Now I just keep working.”