Jan Vesely’s final game with Partizan Belgrade was coming to a close nearly three weeks ago, his club well on its way toward winning its 10th consecutive Serbian title. He went to the bench, hugged and high-fived his teammates, and was overwhelmed by the sound. For several minutes, thousands of fans at Pionir Hall bobbed up and down — including a handful waving lit flares — and most were serenading Vesely, screaming his name.
“Ve-se-ly! Ve-se-ly! They chanted to him like he was the king,” said James Gist, the former Good Counsel and Maryland star who was a teammate of the Washington Wizards’ top choice in the 2011 draft last season in Serbia, as he recalled the scene in the closing seconds of the championship game against Hemofarm. “He was the face of Partizan. He was Partizan’s icon.”
Vesely didn’t let the moment go to waste, as he applauded the fans right back, hopped up on the scorer’s table and boisterously pumped his fists. When fans mobbed the floor afterward, Vesely began jumping with them, and it wasn’t long before he was nearly disrobed, still gleefully bouncing around.
“That was the best moment,” Vesely said with a grin. “I really liked that.”
Vesely’s draft-day kiss with girlfriend Eva Kodouskova was an impromptu reaction to the Wizards choosing him sixth overall. But the response it elicited at Prudential Center, from viewers at home and from anyone who watched the replays on YouTube, was further evidence of the natural showmanship of the 21-year-old forward from the Czech Republic.
“He connects with the crowd so well,” Gist said in a telephone interview. “He’s a crowd favorite everywhere he goes.”
Only four years after he left his home to pursue a professional basketball career, Vesely will have an opportunity to win over fans in Washington, a city that he will visit for the first time this week.
The Wizards will formally introduce Vesely on Monday at Verizon Center, but the organization has been hoping to add him to the roster for some time. He could’ve entered the draft last year but opted to return for another season at Partizan that allowed him to mature into a greater role with more responsibility.
“I have to grow up mentally and work on my game,” said Vesely, who averaged 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds in Adriatic league play and 9.2 points and 3.4 rebounds in Euroleague play last season. “I was one of the more important players on Partizan. Two years ago, I was a different player. I learn basketball. I learned almost everything else. I feel like that’s my home. The people they treated me like I’m from there.”
Vesely is just the third player born in the Czech Republic to play in the NBA, joining Jiri Welsch and George Zidek. “Basketball in my country is not so popular, but after this night, I think . . . I hope, that the basketball will be more popular,” Vesely said after the draft. “I will do my best to help that.”
The decision to take Vesely was practically unanimous within the basketball operations side of the organization, with the Wizards enamored with the freakishly athletic 6-foot-11 forward who runs the floor and attacks the rim as if ignited by a fuse. Vesely also has the charisma and confidence to respond to a question about being called the “European Blake Griffin” by calling the Los Angeles Clippers’ all-star and rookie of the year “the American Jan Vesely.”
“We think Jan can play,” Coach Flip Saunders said after the draft. “We think he can come in right away, and he can be a guy that can be a rotation guy and can play for us. He’s got a high motor. Maybe the greatest skill that he has — outside of kissing — is probably how hard he plays. He plays unbelievably hard.”
Gist didn’t know much about Partizan before signing with the team, but he wanted to do some research before heading to Belgrade.
He watched a couple of YouTube clips and couldn’t help but notice the player wearing No. 24 who kept dunking on everybody.
“I saw one of his dunks. His head was above the rim and I was like, ‘Am I going to be playing with this guy?’ ” Gist said. “It’s not like he’s real creative, but if he gets a foot in the lane, he’s not trying to lay it up. He’s not trying to shoot a jumper. He’s trying to dunk the ball, no matter where he is. It’s amazing how he plays.”
Gist had just finished playing a game of five-on-five last Thursday when he told his friends not to leave the gym until he saw Vesely get drafted. When his former teammate joined his hometown team, Gist said he stood up and applauded. “He’s definitely a good addition for the Wizards. I’m glad we’re bringing somebody in who is going to help us win some. I’m a Wizards fan, so I’m happy.”
Vesely still needs to improve in several areas, including free throw shooting — he made just 44 percent of his attempts from the foul line last season. Even Kodouskova had a good time mocking his shortcomings at the line. “We make fun, that he shoots free throws with closed eyes,” she said with a laugh.
Vesely said it would take “a long story” to explain his free throw struggles but offered a condensed version, about losing focus under the pressures to perform for a rabid fan base.
“He wants to get better. His whole motivation was trying to get to the NBA. I wish the best for him. I think he’ll do much better in the NBA than he did in Europe,” Gist said. “Jan brings a lot of energy to the game. His presence is always felt on the court. Not too many people in America are doing what Jan’s doing. He’s got to work on his jumper, got to work on his ballhandling, but his raw talent can’t be taught. That by itself helps teams win.”
It also endears him to fans. “He likes to be in the center of attention,” Kodouskova said. “People in Serbia loved him. They were crazy over him.”
Soon, it will be Washington’s turn.