The Washington Wizards made Jan Vesely their top choice in the draft partly because of the speed and relentless aggression with which he attacked the rim for momentum-swinging dunks while playing in Europe. In the past week, the challenges of adapting to the NBA have been ambushing Vesely in similarly overwhelming fashion.
Two days after arriving on a flight from Prague, Vesely was thrust into two-a-day practices with the Wizards, and he’s trying to figure out what’s moving faster: John Wall or the pace of the game.
“A little bit, I think,” Vesely said when asked if the adjustment has been tough. “I think I’m getting every day into better shape so I think can get into this rhythm.”
The unusual circumstances of the past month have also contributed to the whirlwind of preparing for his rookie season. He trained in Los Angeles, then left last month to return home to the Czech Republic, believing that there would be no swift resolution to the lockout. He contemplated returning to his former team in Serbia, Partizan Belgrade.
But NBA owners and players found a compromise to end the lockout. Then, Vesely wondered if he would be allowed to enter the United States in time for training camp to begin.
“It was difficult,” Vesely said.
Vesely, 21, said he feels comfortable in his new surroundings, but his performance in scrimmages during the first few days of training camp often shows otherwise. He runs the floor well, makes sharp cuts toward the basket, sets screens and is a capable passer. But the high-flying, 6-foot-11 forward appears more willing to blend in than steal the spotlight (as he did with the infamous smooch with his girlfriend on draft night).
For example, Wall tried to set him up for a potential fast-break dunk this week, throwing a beautiful outlet pass ahead of every defender, but Vesely never lifted his head and the ball drifted out of bounds. A day later, Vesely found himself a few feet from the basket with Wall defending him. Despite having a decided height advantage, Vesely refused to back him down or simply shoot over Wall. Instead he turned and attempted a fadeaway, and Wall forced him into shooting an air ball. Afterward, veteran Roger Mason Jr. pulled Vesely aside to urge him to be more assertive in that situation.
“With him, he’s so talented, he can take his time a little bit,” Mason said. “I was just letting him know, giving him support, that in this league, you don't have to rush. A young guy, the tendency in this league is to rush.”
With plenty of depth at his position, the Wizards are in no such hurry to bring along Vesely. Andray Blatche is the starter at power forward, Rashard Lewis can slide over when the team goes to smaller lineups and Trevor Booker, new acquisition Ronny Turiaf and rookie Chris Singleton will also get minutes at the position.
Coach Flip Saunders certainly isn’t concerned, as Vesely regains his legs and attempts to process all that is going on around him.
“Of all of our players, he has a great feel for the game. He really understands, passes the ball extremely well, makes the extra pass, knows when to hold it, when to get rid of it. The speed of the game, that’s not his problem because that’s his forte, getting up and down,” Saunders said. “For him, it’s just constantly working on his fundamentals, working on his shooting, working on all those things. But as far as the feel and how to play, he’s got that.”
Wall has also been encouraged by what he’s seen from Vesely.
“I think he’s still just learning how the NBA game is, how physical it is, how quick it is. But I think he’ll be good down the road,” Wall said. “He’s athletic, can play defense, can jump. He does those things, and he just wants to work. He’s not frustrated or anything. He’s just playing hard.”
After each practice, Vesely spends extra time working on his shooting form near the basket and at the foul line. As Vesely goes through his shooting motion, assistant coach Ryan Saunders will often stand nearby, placing his hand against Vesely’s back to ensure that he maintains his balance and avoids the temptation to lean.
“He’s got really good form,” Flip Saunders said. “He just has a tendency, he fades a little bit and loses his concentration, so I think it’s more to just tighten up his shot a little bit.”
During Vesely’s professional stops in Serbia and Slovenia, the teams didn’t emphasize individual attention and player development. The Wizards have made that a priority as they attempt to rebuild with one of the league’s youngest teams.
“Not a lot of shooting drills, not a lot of one-on-one drills,” Vesely said of his previous teams. “This NBA is different than European basketball.”
Vesely visited Washington for the first time when he came for his introductory news conference. He is still looking for a new apartment but doesn’t expect to have any trouble making the transition to living in a new country.
“The weather is fine, it’s close to Czech so I didn’t have a problem for getting used to D.C.,” Vesely said. “It’s good to be back and to work out.”