Wittman squared up, smiling as he held his hands by his side, and Seraphin leaned back, chuckling. Noticing the playful exchange, Jordan Crawford shouted to someone shooting with a video recorder, “Turn the camera that way!”
Wittman and Seraphin laughed some more before walking away.
For those unfamiliar with the unusual relationship between Seraphin and Wittman, the sight of the coach constantly in the player’s face — berating him for his every misstep and screaming expletives his direction — would probably engender concern that there is some serious dissension.
But Seraphin has accepted his role as a target for Wittman’s abuse, and Wittman enjoys having a player who prefers a heavier hand and responds with more inspired play.
“That’s my guy,” Wittman said of Seraphin, who is beginning his third NBA season. “I learned I could coach Kevin last year. He takes it. He’s fine. He’s good. You learn what buttons you push. You can’t do everybody the same way. He responds well to a lot of that. And he’s a young kid still. Any time I can get him and bring him over I can.”
Wittman continued the tough-love approach with Seraphin during the Wizards’ 100-88 loss to Charlotte in their preseason opener. Seraphin scored 11 points on 5-for-14 shooting, grabbed four rebounds, and got an earful from Wittman. When Seraphin fought inside for an offensive rebound and missed a close layup as he tried to softly drop it in with two hands, Wittman shouted, “Too soft!” When Seraphin got the ball in the low post and attempted a turnaround jumper with 5-foot-11 point guard Kemba Walker guarding him, Wittman screamed, “You’re fading away with a point guard on you?”
Seraphin never slouched or slumped and looked intently into Wittman’s eyes later in the game, when the coach pulled him aside and quietly asked him to communicate more on defense as he patted him on the back.
Wittman’s goading was an important part of Seraphin’s progression in the final month of last season, when Seraphin responded well to increased playing time after JaVale McGee was traded to Denver. Seraphin averaged 15.5 points and 7.0 rebounds while starting the last 15 games and scored in double figures in 22 of the final 25 games overall. After he led the Wizards to an upset of the Chicago Bulls with 21 points and 13 rebounds, Joakim Noah said, “He’s proving to a lot of people that he can be dominant.”
“Last year, that was a surprise,” said Seraphin, who averaged a meager 3.6 points and 3.5 rebounds in his first 32 games before the trade. “Now I think everybody know what I can do. I have to play now. I have to prove that wasn’t just the end of the season. I have to show everybody I can play all of the season right now.”
With Nene sidelined through the early part of training camp with a foot injury, the Wizards are expecting more from Seraphin, 22, who has been one of their more encouraging accomplishments in player development. He arrived in Washington two years ago as a raw, physical talent from French Guyana who spoke limited English and appeared lost whenever he stepped on the floor.
Now, Seraphin enjoys talking trash and joking around in his second language and rarely has to think twice about his next move when he gets the ball inside. He can score with either hand close to the basket, has developed a reliable jump shoot and an incredibly soft touch on his jumper.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said Seraphin “could be a sleeper, a really, really good player.”
After a summer representing France in the London Olympics and learning from daily practices with veterans Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, Seraphin also believes that this could be something of a breakout season for him. He declared on media day that his goal is to start and win the NBA’s most improved player award.
“Why not?” Seraphin said. “I’m confident in myself. I don’t know if I will win. But I think I can.”
Seraphin credited Wittman for having the confidence to put him on the floor and for pushing him to never accept a mediocre effort. Seraphin has grown accustomed to the occasional verbal abuse after playing for hard-nosed coaches at Caja Laboral in Spain during the 2011 NBA lockout and at Cholet Basket, his first professional team in France.
“That’s good, because in my life, I never had a coach like, ‘You’re the best,’ ” Seraphin said. “I’m tough, so I need someone tough with me. I like the way he coaches me.”
He cracked a smile on Sunday when reminded of how Wittman stayed on him against the Bobcats. “That shows me he supports me,” Seraphin said. “He wants me to be better. I think it’s a good thing. I will have to worry the day he doesn’t talk to me.”