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Washington Wizards have a chance to be decent, but they have to work at it

Despite the exciting presence of lightning quick rookie guard John Wall, Coach Flip Saunders and the Wizards might be headed for another long season if the team doesn't roll up its sleeves and take work seriously.
Despite the exciting presence of lightning quick rookie guard John Wall, Coach Flip Saunders and the Wizards might be headed for another long season if the team doesn't roll up its sleeves and take work seriously. (Jonathan Newton/the Washington Post)
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Wednesday, November 10, 2010; 12:35 AM

The Washington Wizards need to practice.

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They really, really need to practice. If they work hard, they have a chance to be a losing team, but a respectable one. Wizards fans know the type well: win 30 games but dream about the future.

However, if they keep slacking off, they have a chance to be genuinely bad, despite the addition of John Wall. They even have the reverse potential to be one of the worst Wizards teams. That's the last thing a franchise wants after grabbing a No. 1 overall pick.

Monday, Coach Flip Saunders stormed out of morning practice 30 minutes before it was scheduled to end, threw the team out of the gym and said, "If you want to get better, come back at 4."

Look at their 1-4 record. Focus on the "one." Be consoled by it.

"You would think that you'd come into a practice - especially with a young team - with a sense of urgency," Saunders said. "We're not going to beg guys to play hard. If they [don't] want to play hard, we'll come back and go another time. We [will] get people who do play hard. That's one thing: As coaches, you can't coach effort. We'll find guys that are going to give it."

This outburst surprises me because, watching the Wizards, I've thought they looked like they had a chance to be decent. Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee are big men with complementary skills. Kirk Hinrich is a proven pro who can bind teams together. When injured Josh Howard returns, he adds a solid veteran swingman. Al Thornton has energy. Gilbert Arenas is back, sort of. Not the old Agent Zero, but still probably a good scorer off the bench.

I've been excited by Wall's incredible, Iverson-worthy speed with the ball, his creative passing, his mid-range shooting and his knack for infiltrating passing lanes. Sure, he has way too many turnovers with 29 in just five games? But he's a rookie. His shooting percentage is only .429 so far? It's very early. Just wait.

Unfortunately, I have a weakness for facts. And those facts, called statistics, are not kind to the Wizards. They say that, until Wall establishes his NBA value or Arenas proves he's turned back the clock on his bad knee by four years, the Wizards are a collection of barely average NBA players with almost no depth.

More worrisome, in two areas where raw effort is measured - rebounding and defensive field-goal percentage - the Wizards are dead last in the NBA. No wonder the coach has already flipped.

"It's frustrating when you lost games that are winnable . . . where you've been outrebounded over the last three, four games by 12 and you're averaging 20 turnovers a game," Saunders said.

This year's team could go either way - dramatically. They have just enough talent, plus the Wall spark, to be fun most nights. But Monday's eruption is a major red flag. The Wizards need to be honest with themselves: Less than full effort will be a disaster.


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