The red, spinning, blaring firetruck sirens of concern about Jan Vesely should’ve been set off in Charlotte in early November, when he willingly allowed Jordan Crawford to attempt free throws for him.
Vesely knew that Bobcats forward Tyrus Thomas had fouled him, but he stepped aside when Crawford – who was a good 25 feet away from the play – approached the foul line. The duo nearly duped the officials but got busted after Crawford made the first free throw and cracked a smile before shooting the next one.
After referees corrected the error, a frightened Vesely was forced to take the shots and missed badly. “I was thinking, ‘You’re not going to get away with it,’ ” an amused A.J. Price said of the play that captured Vesely’s confidence-deficient sophomore campaign.
Vesely’s fear of free throws was known by his teammates and the lost faith in his own abilities was displayed throughout a lost season in which he often lacked the aggressive, frenzied play that led the Wizards to take him sixth overall in 2011.
When asked what Vesely needed to focus on this offseason, Coach Randy Wittman didn’t hesitate to mention that the 6-foot-11 big man had to worry about more than developing a consistent jump shot.
“He needs to work on his head first,” Wittman said.
The Wizards showed their confidence in Vesely before his second season began, when they picked up his option for the 2013-14 season worth $3.34 million. But at no point after did Vesely show that he shared their faith. Vesely regressed in every statistical category and barely finished with more points (126) and rebounds (122) than personal fouls (107).
“It’s hard. Especially after my first season in the NBA, I was playing a lot. It’s hard not to find my position on the team and stay ready every game when you’re not playing,” said Vesely, who only missed nine games, including the first seven because of a hip injury during his 66-game lockout-shortened rookie season. “I just try to fight it. I didn’t know what time, when I’m going on the court so it’s hard to stay ready. I did my best, and I tried to work hard every day.”
Vesely also appeared in just 51 of 82 games despite not having any injuries of note, with Wittman having more proven alternatives in Emeka Okafor or Nene. Kevin Seraphin wasn’t always consistent, but he had an established role as a scorer off the bench. Vesely often looked like a player without a position or purpose.
To blame Vesely’s disappearance from the rotation solely on the arrival of Emeka Okafor, or the presence of Nene, doesn’t take into consideration that Vesely often hid when given opportunities. Vesely lacked the showmanship he displayed during his three seasons playing for Partizan Belgrade in Serbia, was too content setting screens instead of taking open shots and his signature high-energy plays came in shorter, more sporadic bursts.
“There are sometimes, I see Jan and he’s flying all around and I say, ‘That’s Jan.’ Other times, he’s shying away when he doesn’t have the confidence and that’s his main thing,” Wittman said. “I’m not smart enough to tell you I’ve got the answer to fix that. But we’re going to work on him. I mean, in trying to help him become a more confident player.”
As he enters the most critical offseason of his young career, Vesely is going back to his roots this summer. Once the season concluded, Vesely rushed to get back to the Czech Republic to reunite with family and friends. He will return in a few months to represent his native country for the first time in four years at Eurobasket in September in Slovenia. In between, Vesely plans to work out in Los Angeles with his former coach in Slovenia from his early days as a professional basketball player and also participate in summer league in Las Vegas.
“He needs to do better, he needs to improve and he needs to find a way to get that confidence back,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said recently about Vesely. “He needs to be out on the court; he needs to be playing. That’s a way to build up confidence and have success in game-time situations. He’s going to play a lot of basketball this summer. He’s going to play with us in summer league, the Czech national team after that. He’s going to get a lot of minutes. At the end of last season when he did get consistent minutes, he put up some solid numbers. Unfortunately, he didn’t get that this year.”
Vesely’s struggle with his confidence was well-known amongst coaches and teammates; not just because of his tentative play but also because of what he shared with them. He missed 27 of 39 free throw attempts – and resisted contact inside because he viewed the foul line as a punishment rather than reward for aggressive play.
“I’ve heard it out of his own mouth,” Price explained. “He doesn’t like to go to the free throw line, because everybody’s watching. It’s a confidence thing, so you know exactly what the issue is with him. It’s up to him to find that piece, or that confidence. However he’s going to find it, it’s up to him to find it.”
Vesely is only the third player born in the Czech Republic to play in the NBA, and Tomas Satoransky, the Wizards’ second round choice in 2012, will be the fourth whenever he is able to come to the United States. Jiri Welsch, a first-round pick in 2002, has had the most success, averaging 6.4 points and 2.4 rebounds with a career player efficiency rating of 11.2 in four seasons with the Warriors, Boston, Cleveland and Milwaukee.
Early last season, a Western Conference executive said that Vesely’s career could be salvageable and the Wizards will probably listen if a team willing to take a chance on a player who averaged just 2.4 points and 2.5 rebounds in his second season. Since coming to Washington, Grunfeld has only dealt one of his first-round draft picks within three years after selecting him – Oleksiy Pecherov, who averaged 3.6 points and 2.1 rebounds in two seasons with the Wizards before getting thrown into the deal with Minnesota for Randy Foye and Mike Miller.
Wittman said he is wants to see one of the Wizards’ four first-round forwards – Vesely, Seraphin, Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton – distinguish himself this summer and prove to be worthy of a longer investment from the team.
“We’re going to play the guys that deserve to play and that’s what it boils down to,” Wittman said. “Now, we’ve got to continue to work and develop players and we will continue to do that. It’s going to be important for those guys to show me who is going to jump up and go from being here [down low] and who is going to be here [up high].”
Vesely will have to make significant progress in more areas than his confidence this offseason, because it seems unlikely that the team would pick up his fourth-year option worth $4.24 million based on his limited production. He is hopeful that reuniting with the Czech national team will place him in a more familiar supportive environment in which he can prosper.
“I’m excited a lot,” Vesely said. “I haven’t played for the Czech in a long time and a lot of guys that I know a long time will be there and I can’t wait to play and be with them again. I think I have more confidence there after being there all summer.
“I want to improve on everything,” he said. “Just try to work hard all summer. That will be my main focus.”