Washington Wizards’ rookies have rough first season

John McDonnell/THE WASHINGTON POST - Wizards forward Jan Vesely, here going in for a dunk, was the sixth overall pick in the draft. He is averaging 3.3 points and 3.4 rebounds this season.

The Washington Wizards’ draft room was filled with enthusiasm last June when the franchise pulled off what appeared to be a successful coup, despite a talent pool that had been described by most scouts and executives as a weak draft class. The Wizards addressed several needs, as they found an athletic big man who could run the floor with John Wall, had a defensive-minded small forward fall into their laps, and plucked a backup point guard from a successful college program.

But less than a week after Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack arrived for their respective news conferences and had brief workouts with the coaching staff, the NBA underwent a five-month lockout that robbed them of the typical preparation time for rookies. And the compressed season has put them through a more intense-than-usual wringer with a steady stream of games and few practices in between.

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Combine all that with the Wizards (12-39) enduring another tumultuous season that has included the dismissal of a coach, a trade deadline deal that shipped away two starters and two other starters getting shut down, and the trio hasn’t had the most ideal environment in which to thrive.

“It’s always up and down for rookies,” said Coach Randy Wittman, who has gone 10-24 since replacing Flip Saunders on Jan. 24. “You just try to help them through those valleys that everybody goes through and tell them to keep fighting. In the end, it’s going to pay off.”

After missing the start of the season with a right hip injury, Vesely, the sixth overall pick who hails from the Czech Republic, is averaging 3.3 points and 3.4 rebounds. He was a player the Wizards had coveted for nearly two years, with his high motor, agility and high-flying acrobatics. Several scouts and executives had doubts about the 6-foot-11 Vesely’s actual position and one NBA general manager acknowledged concern over his ability to score in the league.

Saunders hired a shooting coach to work with Vesely on the second day of training camp, and Vesely has still gotten most of his offense through dunks. He has made 56 of 84 shots (67 percent) inside the restricted area, but is just 2-26 (eight percent) from everywhere else. Vesely made his first shot from beyond nine feet last Thursday in Indiana.

Shortly after taking over, Wittman replaced Andray Blatche in the starting lineup with Vesely, but he eventually had to go with second-year forward Trevor Booker. Vesely said this season has been an adjustment, but not because of the language and cultural differences in America.

“Losing all the time, that’s very hard for me, because I’m use to, from overseas, to winning,” said Vesely, who played for Serbian power Partizan Belgrade the past three seasons. “I’ve been outside of my country for like five years already, so it’s no big deal for me.”

Singleton wasn’t expected to be available to the Wizards with the 18th pick, since many had him projected to go in the late lottery. But even the Wizards didn’t anticipate that Singleton would wind up replacing Rashard Lewis in the starting lineup only nine games into the season. Saunders went with Singleton because of his defensive intensity and he has started 36 games, which is third-most for any player on the team.

Singleton has taken his lumps, though, having to contend with the opposing team’s best offensive option every game. He has also struggled to find a comfortable spot within the offense, often settling for being a spot-up perimeter shooter, despite connecting on just 32.6 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. He is averaging 4.6 points and 3.4 rebounds in about 22 minutes and has scored in double figures just six times.

“It’s been up and down. But just from experience, getting the playing time, I’m just trying to pick it up and be more aggressive. I just don’t want to be the weak link out there,” Singleton said. “In the NBA, it’s ruthless out here. I definitely had one of the more challenging rookie years. I’ve learned a lot. I wouldn’t change it for the world. We just have to build on this.

Mack didn’t become a part of the regular rotation until Wittman took over and has often provided a steady alternative at backup for Wall, as he has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.89:1. But he has also had difficulty learning to play lead guard after being one of the primary scoring options while leading Butler to back-to-back NCAA title games.

“I threw him into the wolves. He’s gotten bitten and he’s bitten some people,” Wittman said.

Mack said he is pleased overall with his performance, considering all that has been thrown at him. “It’s been a kind of weird rookie year. Started out dealing with the lockout, the coaching change, starting out 0-8. This year is going to prepare me for the rest of my time in the league.”

With just 15 games remaining, including Sunday in Toronto, the rookies will continue to get in extra work with pregame shooting and dribbling drills with the coaching staff and try to take advantage of every chance to improve. “It’s tough for them,” Booker said. “They didn’t get summer league, a full training camp. I think they are doing a good job so far, but imagine if they did have a training camp and a summer league to prepare, they would probably be different players.”

 
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