For the first time since Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison were together in Washington, the Wizards enter a season with genuine postseason aspirations. Though they finished with just 29 wins last season, the Wizards were encouraged by a strong finish and a busy offseason that included signing John Wall to a massive extension, retaining Martell Webster, drafting Otto Porter and adding veterans Eric Maynor and Al Harrington.
Before the players throw on their practice jerseys Saturday at George Mason and start working toward ending a five-year postseason drought, they will pose for pictures and address reporters during media day on Friday at Verizon Center. Here are some of the top story lines entering training camp:
Will John Wall finally lead the Wizards to the playoffs?
Wall’s first three seasons in the NBA were doomed from the start. He began his career as the franchise started its awkward transition from the Gilbert Arenas era. His sophomore campaign was delayed because of a lockout and stunted by a coaching change and a shoddy supporting cast. And last season, a stress injury in his left knee caused him to miss the first two months and knocked the Wizards out of playoff contention before he returned. As he enters his fourth season, Wall no longer has the built-in excuses of the past. He is healthy and surrounded by players that complement his skill set and have professional attitudes. He is familiar with the coaching staff and the scheme that Coach Randy Wittman wants to run. And he has a five-year, $80 million extension that declared to the world that the future of the organization is squarely in his hands. Wall has repeatedly stated that point guards are measured by wins, not statistics. After a strong finish that hinted at his potential last season, and another offseason working out with famed trainer Rob McClanaghan, Wall has his best chance to take the Wizards where they haven’t been in five years.
Who will step up for Emeka Okafor?
The Wizards had hoped to enter training camp injury-free but were blindsided by the loss of Okafor, the team’s defensive anchor and leading rebounder from last season. Okafor, who is out indefinitely with a neck injury, played a critical role in helping the Wizards finish fifth in the NBA in field goal percentage defense. But in his absence, the Wizards will have to rely on the contributions of three players who regressed last season (Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely and Trevor Booker) and a 15-year veteran forward who was limited to just 10 games last season (Al Harrington). Seraphin, a skilled offensive big man, declined playing for the French national team last summer so that he could stay in Washington to work on improving his game and his body. Vesely, a high-energy 7-footer, participated in summer league in Las Vegas and had a breakthrough performance for the Czech Republic during the European basketball championships. Booker, a rugged but undersized forward, focused on getting healthy after a difficult campaign. Harrington, a bench scorer with an outside touch, has worked himself back from a knee injury that held him back in Orlando. Wittman can experiment with different lineups based on matchups, but the Wizards will need someone to emerge from this bunch – or look for other options in the trade market until Okafor returns.
Is Bradley Beal ready to break out?
Bradley Beal had to learn the hard way that there is a major difference between being hurt and being injured. Beal attempted to play through a series of ailments (a strained right wrist, severe ankle sprains) before his season ended prematurely with a stress injury in his right fibula. The latter delayed his summer training schedule by a few months, but he is anxious to build upon a promising rookie season in which he became a suitable shooter to pair with the speedy Wall. The duo played just 25 games together, but during that stretch, Beal averaged 15 points and shot 46.8 percent from the field and 46.6 percent from beyond the three-point line. When he was finally cleared for basketball related activities, Beal focused on his ball-handling to take some pressure off Wall and those who have witnessed voluntary workouts rave about his improved offensive arsenal. The 20-year-old Beal recently stated that his confidence is “still sky high.” Now, Beal has to show how that translates to regular season production.
What will Otto Porter Jr. bring in his first season?
Porter is the third top three pick that the Wizards have drafted during the franchise’s extended rebuilding effort, but the swingman from Georgetown arrives with less pressure to immediately perform than Wall or Beal. Wall had to carry the weight of being the top overall pick while Beal began his career as a primary scoring option with Wall starting last season on the shelf with injury. Not only does Porter have Wall and Beal around to shoulder the load for the organization, but the Wizards also have two proven veterans at small forward in Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster, which gives Porter a chance to watch and learn until he is ready. The Wizards don’t plan to rush Porter’s development but they also don’t intend to hold him back if he proves worthy of handling more responsibility.
Can Nene stay healthy?
When Nene arrived from Denver in March 2012, he was already a little banged up with a nagging foot problem that only got worse when he decided to represent Brazil in the London Olympics. Plantar fasciitis would continue to plague him throughout his first full season with the Wizards, as he missed all of training camp, came off the bench until he found his rhythm, and later struggled through other ailments. Nene shot below 50 percent for just the second time in his 10-year career and averaged the fewest points (12.6) in five seasons. This summer, Nene decided to rest and let his injuries fully heal so that he could return to play at a level reminiscent of the three seasons he had before signing a five-year, $65 million contract in December 2011. From 2008-2011, Nene averaged 14.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 78 games played. But he has only been available for 72 of a possible 107 games with the Wizards. Nene turned 31 earlier this month but his presence on the floor surely makes a difference: The Wizards are 33-39 with Nene in uniform and 7-28 without him.