By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; D01
LAS VEGAS -- Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was seated courtside next to team President Ernie Grunfeld at UNLV's Cox Pavilion on Monday night, taking in his summer league team and marveling at the talents of No. 1 overall pick John Wall, when he was suddenly overcome with panic.
Wall split two defenders, bumped into Los Angeles Clippers forward Rod Benson and missed a layup as Eric Bledsoe soared in from behind to block the shot. Bledsoe knocked Wall on his backside, and as Bledsoe crashed to the floor his foot inadvertently pressed down on Wall's chin. Wall was motionless after his head bumped hard against the court. And until head athletic trainer Eric Waters helped Wall sit up and Wall eventually walked toward the bench unassisted, Leonsis was understandably nervous. "I was like, 'Oh my gosh, there goes the first brick in the rebuild,' " Leonsis said late Tuesday night. "But I think he just hit his head and he shook it off."
Wall returned to finish with 18 points, 10 assists and 5 steals to lead the Wizards to a 2-0 record in the NBA Summer League. In his first two games, Wall is averaging a team-best 21 points and nine assists, which is pretty much what Leonsis expected to see when he placed the future of the franchise in the hands of the 19-year-old phenom.
"He's pretty much as advertised. Very quick with the ball. He can get to the basket. I like that. I also like the way you see him try to get his teammates involved. He'll reward guys who work hard," Leonsis said, while keeping the performance in perspective. "It's just the summer league, wouldn't put too much stock into it. If he wasn't leading in scoring and assists, you'd be nervous. Right now, I think he has a fully developed game."
Leonsis welcomed Wall to Washington in elaborate fashion and placed a large banner on Sixth Street NW proclaiming Wall as the "Game Changer." Leonsis said the decision to promote Wall in such grand fashion wouldn't have a negative affect on the team's highest-paid player, Gilbert Arenas. "I told Gil we were going to do that. I told him it was the right thing to do with John being the number one pick," he said. "But we're going to market the team. I think it's very, very important that while this is a league that's built on stars -- and we'll have our fair share of stars -- it's teams that win."
"I think Gilbert gets it. I think Gilbert understands that having a John Wall here is really, really good for him and his career," Leonsis said.
Leonsis made a rookie mistake when he arrived on Tuesday to participate in his first NBA Board of Governors meeting at the Fantasy Tower of the Palms Casino & Resort. Leonsis was exquisitely dressed in a dark suit, white shirt with red pinstripes and red tie "to pay my respects" for his fellow owners. But the representatives of the other 29 teams came in much more business casual attire to accompany temperatures that have topped 110 degrees.
As NBA Commissioner David Stern and Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver met with league owners to discuss revenue sharing, collective bargaining and the Miami Heat's surprising free agency coup, Leonsis sat in silence. "I didn't say anything. I just was trying to listen and trying to understand what the league needs to do and get to know the personalities of the league," Leonsis said. "There's a lot of smart people in that room, that's for sure."
Leonsis is feeling better for his decision to avoid entering the free agency madness after the three biggest names on the market -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh -- all chose to play in Miami while most of the other talents stayed with their respective teams. The Wizards have instead elected to build through the draft, selecting Wall, Trevor Booker, Kevin Seraphin and Hamady N'Diaye, and using their cap space to acquire players on short-term deals like Kirk Hinrich and Yi Jianlian. They signed 6-foot-11 big man Hilton Armstrong to a one-year deal worth less than $1 million.
"One thing I feel comfortable about is I told everyone the truth. I didn't think we could build through free agency. So, we had to go through the draft and were able to have a good draft," Leonsis said. "We have a couple of players still to add, but my biggest concern is the arc and the development of the team. We want to be tougher to play against. We want to be a team that's young, with very, very active legs. We also want the team to really like each other. I think camaraderie is really, really important and having a strong locker room is vital. So I think you'll see what type of team we develop over a two-, three-year period. But our coaching staff, they want to make the playoffs next year. So, we want to give them the tools to compete and do that, but not doing anything that takes us off the path of the rebuild that we're on."
When asked about the Heat being a prospective obstacle in the Southeast Division over the next few years, Leonsis said: "Well I think what Miami has done is an interesting social experiment. They have three other worldly players and now they'll have to build around them and keep the team together. That's never been done before. Right now, I would say the Lakers are the reigning champs and they are eight, nine deep. That's the kind of time I want to build. I want to build a team that has lots of interchangeable parts, has depth at each position, but has a rotation that's eight, nine players deep. It'll be interesting to see how well Miami does."