Jan Vesely opened the most important game of his FIBA basketball career on Monday with a play that was symbolic of his breakthrough performance for the Czech Republic throughout the European basketball championship in Slovenia. He made a beeline down the lane, snuck behind the defense and caught a pass from his good friend Tomas Satoransky before throwing down an emphatic, rapid-reflex jam.
Vesely, however, ended the game meekly as he missed two more free throws – heavy emphasis on “throw” – that added to a forgettable performance from the line in the Czech Republic’s tournament-ending, 70-53, loss to Croatia. He left court, wiping sweat with his towel, and lowered his head dejectedly because his efforts to take his native country beyond the preliminary round in Group C proved to be futile.
Otherwise, Vesely’s five-game performance in the nation where his professional basketball career began proved to be fruitful.
Needing a much-needed injection of swagger after a dismal second season with the Wizards, Vesely appeared to find himself in a series of fastbreak dunks, jump hooks, hard-fought rebounds and blocked shots. He was the high-energy, jackrabbit that the Wizards thought they had selected sixth overall to complement John Wall in 2011.
Vesely went on to lead the entire tournament in rebounding (11.2) and double doubles (three) while contributing 17 points per game – all while displaying the passion that has been absent through much of his time on the other side of the Atlantic. Once again, Vesely was the showman that he had been while playing for Partizan-Belgrade in Serbia. He howled, pumped up the crowd, raised his fists and often heard his name chanted by his spirited fans.
His play was indicative of the hard-to-overlook importance of confidence and comfort.
The Czech Republic (2-3) finished fourth in its group. Vesely had his best games in wins over Poland (23 points, 14 rebounds) and Georgia (27 points, 10 rebounds), but he arguably had his most impressive outing in a 60-39 loss to Spain. Vesely finished with just seven points, but he outrebounded all-star center Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies, 14-10, and helped limit Gasol to just two points.
Vesely’s strengths were apparent as he made opponents pay for not paying him enough attention. The 7-foot forward attacked the offensive glass for putbacks, made quick cuts to the basket and often got rid of the ball before the defense could react.
In Washington, Vesely has often played without purpose or a position, but he appeared comfortable as a roving center for the Czech Republic. Satoransky, the Wizards’ 32nd pick of the 2012 draft, found Vesely running the floor for lobs or dipping underneath for bounce passes.
Vesely also benefited from a wide-open floor, with shooters all around, which allowed him to find crevices to sneak in for passes or rebounds. When he got the ball in the post, Vesely was able to get to his spots without being rushed and went up without hesitation.
The areas where Vesely has problems remain the same. He remains a stellar athlete for his size but rarely was effective when he wasn’t on the move or very close to the basket. His jumper was shaky and no amount of aggressive play could solve his horrendous touch from the foul line.
Vesely made just 11 of 31 (35.5) of his free attempts. On Monday, Vesely had another double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) but Croatia limited his influence on the game by fouling him almost every time he drove to the basket. Vesely missed 9 of 10 free throws and didn’t appear focused on any of his attempts. He just bent his knees, lifted the ball above his head and let the ball go wherever it was going to go. But Vesely is just 23 and has considerable room to improve.
Vesely entered summer league with the right attitude and had a solid showing in Las Vegas that set the stage for Slovenia. He is well aware of what’s at stake regarding his future with the organization, because the Wizards still have to determine whether they should pick up the $4.2 million option for the 2014-15 season by late October. The Wizards haven’t made their intentions evident, but one NBA scout recently noted that big men often develop slower than perimeter players and teams are more willing to err on the side of size.
“I was trying to work hard, practice every day and improve my basketball skills,” Vesely told Eurobasket2013.org about his offseason. “I tried to forget about last season, that I did not play or whatever else happened doesn’t matter any more. I just wanted to stay focused and be prepared to come here and play my game the same way I did when I was in Europe.”
How Vesely’s summer will translate for the upcoming season remains uncertain. With the team feeling the pressure to be a playoff team, Vesely won’t be handed the minutes he received early in his career and will have to prove fit from the start. Vesely suffered in John Wall’s absence last season and never fully recovered after Wall returned since he rarely received opportunities.
Vesely will open training camp on the back end of the rotation, with Nene and Emeka Okafor expected to start, Kevin Seraphin slated as the primary backup center and veteran free agent acquisition Al Harrington on board to serve as a stretch four to create space for Wall. While Vesely won’t get the minutes he received in summer league or with the Czech Republic, the coaching staff can certainly take note of what worked for Vesely. He went and got the ball on both ends, attacked the basket assuredly scored without needing the ball for much longer than the time it takes to dunk.
Considering where he started at the beginning of this summer, Vesely needed to overcome the other obstacles in his head, and to remind himself that he can actually make contributions on the floor. With training camp less than three weeks away, Vesely should leave the European championship with the confidence that there is something there. But is he going to go get it?