For the first time in several weeks, Jan Vesely’s two-bedroom apartment in Northern Virginia is no longer crowded with visitors or filled with the aromas of his favorite dishes from his native Czech Republic. Vesely’s mother, father, sister, brother in-law, grandmother and aunt are all back home, leaving his fiancee, Eva Kodouskova, as his only sounding board during his disappointing sophomore campaign with the Washington Wizards.
“It means a lot to me that she’s here,” said Vesely, whose most memorable moment as a Wizard remains his draft-night smooch with Kodouskova in 2011.
Vesely has needed someone to lean on, having been benched for 23 of the Wizards’ 61 games and having struggled mightily when he actually received playing time. A high-flying, 6-foot-11 forward, Vesely has fallen well short of the expectations that the Wizards had when they selected him sixth overall in 2011 (ahead of Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried, who are all logging productive minutes for their respective teams).
The Wizards (20-41) have experienced marginal success since John Wall came back from a left knee injury, rookie Bradley Beal developed into a promising young player and Nene and Emeka Okafor formed a stout defensive front line. But that progress has obscured only partially the disconcerting regression of the four forwards Washington drafted in the first round the past three seasons: Vesely, Chris Singleton, Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker.
None has foundered more than Vesely, who has followed up an inspiring finish to his rookie season — he averaged nine points and seven rebounds in 15 games last April — with a campaign that is on pace to rank as one of the 10 worst in franchise history.
Vesely is averaging just 2.6 points and 2.3 rebounds and his player efficiency rating — the metric used to measure per-minute production — is a paltry 6.76, more than eight points below the NBA average and six spots away from last in the league.
Among the players who have appeared in at least 35 games in one season for the Bullets/Wizards franchise, Vesely’s rating for this season ranks 561st out of 570, just above the rookie season of 2007 second-round pick Dominic McGuire, who is out of the league.
As a rookie, Vesely averaged 4.7 points and 4.4 rebounds and had a PER of 11.57. This season, he has the same number of rebounds as personal fouls (88) and his free throw shooting has been an unsightly adventure at 27.2 percent (9 of 33). He made 53.2 of his attempts last season.
“He’s got to be a guy that plays confidently. That means the ability to run up and down the floor, defend, rebound, block some shots. Not play sometimes, where he hides from the ball,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Vesely. “He’s a smart player. He’s a skilled player that can pass well, makes the right reads and he’s got to put himself in those positions when he’s out there.”
A team that aims to build through the draft doesn’t have the luxury of missing on a high lottery pick, especially after trading away the fifth pick in what has proven to be a quality 2009 draft for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. But Vesely has appeared more unsure of himself the more he plays, and compares his struggles in the NBA to his initial adjustment to playing for European power Partizan in Serbia.
With Partizan, Vesely went from being a defensive-minded reserve his first season to leaving as an offensive focal point and receiving honors as most promising young European player — ahead of Ricky Rubio — in his third and final season.
“Every time is hard to adjust to new team. Especially from Serbia to the NBA,” Vesely said. “In Serbia, it wasn’t that quick but it happened faster than here. But I knew, coming from Belgrade, from being a ‘star’ to the NBA to get my position again was hard. I was ready for that, and I just have to be patient, wait for my chance and I have to work hard and stay ready.”
Vesely was selected to serve as an active complement to Wall in an exciting, up-tempo offense. But the Wizards are one of the league’s least-efficient offensive teams, and Vesely is a player reliant on being fed in order to eat. Wall was always willing to look for Vesely on fast breaks and for lobs in half-court sets last season and Vesely thrived.
When Vesely started the season slumping badly, Wall’s absence for the first 33 games was often mentioned as a cause of the problems. But since Wall has returned, the duo has played a total of 37 minutes together over eight games and in that time the Wizards have been outscored, 53-52.
“It’s hard, but I think I affected myself, you know,” Vesely said. “Sometimes, I wasn’t ready for games or something, but I was doing stupid fouls or something.”
Vesely, who received significant minutes at the end of last season because of injuries to Nene and Booker, flashed a smile as he recalled a win over Charlotte in which he was 8 for 8 from the field and scored a career-high 16 points. But the Wizards added veterans Okafor and Trevor Ariza last summer, forcing their young forwards to either scrap for playing time or get lost in the shuffle.
“Of course, they are experienced players and they been in the league, so it’s very easy for them,” Vesely said of Okafor and Ariza. “For the young guys, they just have to work hard and prove that they can play. It’s tough but I try to work every day and feel better about myself. If I feel I put my all in it, I can be happy with myself.”
Despite Vesely’s lack of productivity, one Western Conference assistant general manager recently said that Vesely has some ability and that what the 22-year-old does well — set screens, hustle and run the floor — could help a good team win.
The Wizards picked up Vesely’s third-year option worth $3.5 million next season, and owner Ted Leonsis wrote a blog post expressing his support for Vesely earlier in the season. But the show of support hasn’t led to any breakthroughs.
“It’s a hell of a league, and there are always ups and downs, especially early in your career,” Wittman said. “For young guys, it takes time for these guys, and they go through things, physically, mentally and confidence-wise.”
The lowest point, Vesely said, came in December, when his poor play had him super-glued to his cushy leather seat on the bench. At the start of the new year, Vesely had such a steady rotation of visitors that he bought an extra mattress to lay out in the living room.
Vesely said driving home from Verizon Center or the airport after not playing in the previous game was “kind of depressing,” but when he opened the door and was greeted by his loved ones “it was nice to see. So it was fun.”
Vesely played a total of seven minutes in two of the 13 games between Feb. 1 and March 1. Wittman finally gave him another shot March 3 against Philadelphia, and he caught two alley-oop dunks from Wall and A.J. Price and finished with six points, tripling his total from the previous month. He went scoreless with a turnover in eight minutes in Minnesota, again looking lost, unfocused and lacking energy.
“The only part of his game that he’s struggling, is mental. Has nothing to do with his skills,” said Price, who had a long talk with Vesely before a recent shoot-around. “I was just trying to tell him to find something — a safe haven, almost — and say, ‘I’m going to play for that.’ I told him play for his girl. I know that’s one person I see him all the time with.”
Kodouskova is often at home games watching from the stands, but Vesely said she stays busy taking classes at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. They have explored the city and tried different restaurants; Vesely has become especially fond of sushi. And while he appreciates the support and the encouraging words of Kodouskova and visiting family, Vesely knows that they can’t play for him.
After committing himself to preparing for the NBA the past few summers, Vesely has decided to once again play for the Czech Republic at EuroBasket in Slovenia in September.
“It’s hard to explain, if somebody wasn’t there, you wouldn’t understand. If you’re in it, it’s about you and how you figure it out,” Vesely said. “Every time you say you can do more, to say I did everything for this. The NBA is a big thing. It’s all about confidence. If you have the confidence and you keep working hard, it’ll pay off. This is the best league in the world, so it’s a dream to be here.”