As the Washington Wizards parted ways for the final time this season on Thursday, their 19-year-old shooting guard was hoping for more facial hair, their Brazilian big man was eager to rest his sore left foot and their flashy point guard was focused on earning a financial reward. Bradley Beal, Nene and John Wall will be essential to the Wizards’ efforts next season to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
“If we’re healthy, we’re easily a playoff team,” Wall said after players held exit meetings with Coach Randy Wittman and President Ernie Grunfeld at Verizon Center.
But the foundation for that potential postseason run may have been set before Beal had found the confidence to play up to his position as the No. 3 overall pick last June, or Nene started to feel healthy enough to make sufficient contributions, or Wall began to add production to the promise that came when he was selected No. 1 overall in 2010.
Without provocation or prodding Thursday, forward Martell Webster revealed how an emotional Wittman was able to get his players to buy into his system.
During the Wizards’ 12-game losing streak to open the season, Wittman had grown increasingly frustrated that the hard work and diligence of his team wasn’t being rewarded with any wins. And one troubling double-overtime loss in Atlanta — when Webster ran off the court thinking he had made the winning tip-in before it was waved off — pushed Wittman over the edge.
“He was crying after that game,” Webster said. “And he told us that he cared about us, and for me that was a point in the season where I was just like, ‘I’m in. I’m totally in.’ ”
Nene was so touched by Wittman’s passion that he said, “I cried with him.”
Wittman initially disputed the claims that he wept with humor, before later admitting that he’s an “emotional guy” who was moved by the heart and conviction of his players. He had confidence that the season would make a turn for the better, which it did, as the Wizards went 25-19 from Jan. 7 to April 6 before injuries once again stumped any momentum heading into the summer. But the initial response of his players has given Wittman confidence that the Wizards have the pieces that will help them eventually contend.
“You’ve got to be all in,” Wittman said. “You can’t be halfway: step in, step out. And I thought they were all in all year long, and that’s encouraging moving forward. What we have here and what these guys have shown me is very encouraging.”
For a 29-win team that ended the season on a six-game losing skid, the Wizards were extremely optimistic about what lies ahead and focused more of their growth as a top 10 defensive unit than finishing with the NBA’s seventh-worst overall record and second-worst road record. Free agents-to-be Webster, A.J. Price, Garrett Temple and Cartier Martin all expressed interest in returning, while the players under contract all discussed getting healthy and coming back as improved players when training camp begins in October.
“You never want to harp on negative things or keep negative thoughts in your mind. You always want your thoughts to be positive,” said forward Trevor Ariza, who doesn’t plan to exercise the early-termination option in his contract for next season. “This is a game of confidence, so if you go into next season with confidence and knowing that you’re going to be a better team, I think that gives you a good start and a good chance to win a lot of games.”
The additions of Ariza, Webster and Emeka Okafor and a full season of Nene gave the Wizards more credibility, especially when Wall returned to put all of the pieces in the correct positions. Beal also came on strong in his rookie season after an initially difficult adjustment.
“I knew there would be times when I would struggle,” Beal said of his first season. “Guys are a lot stronger, faster — and these guys are good. That’s what a lot of people don’t realize. You may never have heard of anybody, but they can play. It’s definitely what I thought it would be. A lot of success, a lot of failing times, but it was definitely fun.”
But forwards Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Booker, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton all regressed after playing more prominent roles last season. The confidence of Vesely, who will play for the Czech Republic national team this summer, was so shot that he told teammates he feared going to the foul line to shoot free throws.
“It’s time for them to step up and show me who we need to move forward with and who we don’t,” said Wittman, who plans to bring in each player for individual workouts. “Show me who’s head and shoulders above the other.”
The Wizards will have another lottery pick in the NBA draft, but Wittman and several of his players, including Wall, all felt that Washington needed to add another veteran rather than focus on developing another prospect. Wall is also looking to cash in on a season in which he established career highs in scoring (18.5 points per game) and field goal percentage (44.1). He is eligible for a contract extension this summer before becoming a restricted free agent in the summer of 2014 and is seeking a five-year, maximum-contract deal.
“I know they still believe in me and I believe in myself,” Wall said. “I think I’m taking the steps I need to take to keep improving and help my game develop offensively and defensively. Just trying to get better and trying to lead this organization back to the promised land. That’s all my goal is, not to worry about nothing else than just winning here.”