By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 11:27 PM
Kevin Seraphin grabbed the microphone, scanned his audience and burst into a Creole rap from his native French Guiana. As the words flowed, a smile came over his face. He continued to rhyme, rock and sway side to side until he was interrupted by his own laughter.
Seraphin later admitted that he hardly knew all of the words, but his instincts carried him through the song. The Washington Wizards and Seraphin are still waiting for his instincts to take over on the basketball court, as the 20-year-old struggles to adjust to a style of basketball unfamiliar to the one he played in France. His limited English, coupled with the deluge of information coming at him, makes his adjustment even more difficult.
"Right now, I'm discovering everything, so it's tough," Seraphin said through an interpreter. "In France, I knew right away what to do when my point guard was calling a play. It was instinctive. Now I'm having to think before moving. It's frustrating. The game is different, the rules are different, and it's so fast. Even when we play on half court, it's fast."
The Wizards selected Seraphin with the 17th overall draft pick, which came to the team as part of the draft-day deal with Chicago that also brought guard Kirk Hinrich to Washington. They are willing to be patient with the raw, 6-foot-10 project who has only been playing basketball for about six years but possesses a massive physique, quick feet and enormous hands .
"He's a big body guy, probably our strongest guy in the post," Coach Flip Saunders said. "When we drafted him, we knew that his first year was going to be a learning process for him, not only to learn the NBA game, but also learn the language. It takes some time to learn all those things. But he's got a great amount of physical ability and he's a willing learner."
Seraphin grew up playing soccer and didn't pick up a basketball until he was asked to play at age 14. He moved shortly thereafter from Cayenne, French Guiana, to France, where got daily training at the Cholet Basket youth academy. Seraphin said his first year away from home was "very, very difficult" but he made his professional debut for Cholet's senior team in less than three years. "There is a reason for his upside," Seraphin's agent, Bouna N'Diaye, said. "He has room to grow."
Seraphin made an impression with NBA scouts at the 2009 Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, where he had eight points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots to help the World Select team record an upset of a U.S. team led by John Wall. Although Wall blocked his shot in that game, Seraphin said that, since joining the Wizards, he has reminded the No. 1 overall pick that he got him twice.
Seraphin had an impressive sequence in which he dunked on future Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins and sprinted back to send Wall's layup attempt into the first row.
"I thought maybe I can play in the NBA. Before, a dream," Seraphin said. "After that, it became a goal."
A year later, Seraphin was seated in Treviso, Italy, across a table from Wizards vice presidents Tommy Sheppard and Milt Newton discussing his possible future in the league.
"I had a really good feeling with the Wizards, the first time I met them," Seraphin said . "You know right away when somebody wants you, and I could tell that they liked me."
Seraphin visited the Wizards a week before the NBA draft and immediately fell in love with the city, telling N'Diaye that it was his "top choice." When he spoke with team president Ernie Grunfeld, Seraphin told him: "You have to take me! You have to take me!"
Grunfeld smiled back and told him something might get worked out.
"It wasn't about what he told us," Grunfeld said. "He was a nice person. He had a good sense of humor. He's a competitive, serious young kid who adds physicality to us. We needed beef; someone who likes to mix it up inside."
Seraphin has been compared Denver Nuggets center Nene, a rugged defender from Brazil. He takes up a lot of space and can also clear it out with vicious screens. Rodrigue Beaubois, a second-year point guard with the Dallas Mavericks, trained with Seraphin in the same youth academy and said that it is best to avoid collisions with him. "You don't want to be in that situation," Beaubois said with a laugh while shaking his head. "He's a beast. Physically, he's amazing. He's very strong. He's a big baby, that's for sure. I really think he's going to be good for [the Wizards]."
Seraphin got little playing time during the preseason, a trend that will likely continue in the regular season. "I'm not comfortable on the court, so I understand why the coach is not playing me," he said. "But it's tough to watch the game from the bench. I don't like that."
Ariel Levis, an employee in the Wizards' sponsorship department, has duel French and American citizenship and is helping Seraphin get acclimated to his new surroundings in Washington. And while Andray Blatche and Hilton Armstrong have tried to assist him and offer advice, Seraphin said that it has helped to have another French-speaking teammate in fellow rookie Hamady Ndiaye for the times when he gets really lost.
"With guys like that, all of sudden, the light bulb goes off and their improvement skyrockets. Sometimes it takes longer. You really don't know," Saunders said about Seraphin. "Once he starts understanding everything, he won't have to think he can just react, and when he starts reacting, instead of thinking, that's when he's going to be at a high level."