By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 11:57 PM
With hip-hop music blaring and thousands of fans cheering, John Wall looked out in front of him to see smoke, flashing lights and pom-pom waving cheerleaders forming a tunnel that led to all of his teammates. For a brief moment, the 20-year-old rookie thought about breaking out a new dance move - perhaps something that would rival the tea-kettle bop that became a sensation during his freshman year at Kentucky.
But Wall decided instead to contain his impulse, which translated to an awkward lean and skip, with his arms spread wide, as he was the final player introduced to fans at George Mason's Patriot Center shortly after midnight Tuesday.
"It was tough," Wall said of refraining from busting a move, "but if nobody else wanted to do nothing . . ."
In many ways, the spectacle surrounding the new-look Wizards' Midnight Tip-off coming out party - which was televised on NBA TV and featured giveaways and a free pre-practice concert - goes against the makeup of the players, who are bringing a very serious, no-nonsense approach to training camp that can be seen in ways that go beyond Gilbert Arenas's new, scruffy beard.
About 12 hours after the conclusion of the late-night practice, they arrived in front of an empty gymnasium with a banner hanging from the second deck that read, "Back To Basics."
Coach Flip Saunders came up with that new motto for the 2010-11 Wizards, a collection of players who are mostly unknown, unproven or seeking to restore past reputations. It is a stark contrast to the veteran-laden teams that Saunders has coached in either Washington or Detroit, but it also provides an opportunity for him to mold players in his system, teaching them fundamentals and execution.
"I tell people one of the best things that ever happened to me, was I got Kevin Garnett when he was young, so he hadn't picked up any bad habits, so whatever you teach him, he thinks that's the way it's supposed to be," Saunders said. "So he picked up, not only the habits, but also respect of the game. What you hope happens, you hope you can give these guys that opportunity and explain what it's all about."
After missing out on the playoffs with high-payroll teams the past two seasons, the Wizards decided to start over with the hopes of building a talented team through the draft and youth. They were fortunate to land Wall with the No. 1 overall pick, but team President Ernie Grunfeld and the front office also sought more scrappy, physical, blue-collar players who would help change the identity of the team - much to the delight of new owner Ted Leonsis.
"That's culturally something that we want to build, that if the team is successful, the fans will fall in line with the franchise, and you'll have the platform to be a star. The team really matters," Leonsis said during the Midnight Tip-Off. "Hopefully, we have guys that are not into stats, they're into wins, and collectively, the optics of this team. It's important that not only are they coachable but they like being around each other. I thought some of the past teams, the chemistry wasn't high."
One of the first steps Saunders took toward setting the tone for training camp was requiring each player to pass a conditioning test before being allowed to set foot on the court. The late-night practice was essentially a non-structured scrimmage, but the players, who are housed at an on-campus hotel, arrived more than hour early to participate in an afternoon session described as very business-like, with Wall and newcomer Kirk Hinrich quickly assuming the roles as vocal leaders.
Hinrich joked that the midnight practice was "past my bedtime" but said that there was no shortage of energy Tuesday afternoon, when the team was limited to non-contact drills and skeleton drills instead of scrimmaging.
"This is a do-or-die league," Hinrich said. "If you're not competing and doing your job, you're going to be out of the league pretty fast. Guys on this team are trying to make the team, trying to make statements. We have to understand, as a group, have one cause and that's win games."
Saunders is stressing the basics, but he is teaching them in advanced ways. After providing iPod Touches with playbook diagrams and team schedules last season, Saunders has upgraded to the much-larger iPads, which will give him a chance to send out his playbook and videos, so that the players can study them in their hotel rooms.
He invited his friend, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo, to sit in Tuesday, and he said Izzo told him that it had the feel of a college practice. Having a roster of mostly young players presents its challenges, but Saunders said it could also be beneficial.
"I think what it does, they become very receptive to teaching, to coaching," Saunders said. "They want to learn and they become almost perfectionists, in that they want to do what they can in their own way to get better."
As he spoke, he looked around and saw several players, including Wall, getting up extra shots long after practice ended. "We've got a pretty hungry group," he said.