The Washington Post

Jan Vesely has worked his way into Wizards’ starting lineup early in his rookie NBA season

Jan Vesely, center, made a number of plays that don’t show up in a box score to help the Wizards beat the Bobcats on Saturday. (Chuck Burton/Associated Press)

When Jan Vesely was preparing to make his NBA debut earlier this month, he responded to a question about how he could help the Washington Wizards with an answer that revealed his self-awareness, sense of humor and the woes of his team.

“I’m not sure that I’m the guy that can make some miracles,” Vesely said.

Vesely understands his limitations but is confident in his ability to contribute in ways that won’t always wind up in a box score. Relentless activity, hustle and smart basketball plays aren’t easily measured, but they are appreciated and recognized by coaches. And since Vesely provides all three in abundance, new Coach Randy Wittman has already decided to make the bold gamble of inserting the rookie into the starting lineup over veteran Andray Blatche.

“Jan is one of our higher basketball IQ people. He knows how to play, makes right decisions. Defensively, he’s aggressive. He can run the floor extremely well,” Wittman said as the Wizards (4-16) prepared to host the Chicago Bulls on Monday at Verizon Center. “He’s a young kid that’s going to get bigger and stronger, but he knows situations, reads situations well. And I’ve been pleased.”

Vesely, the high-flying, 6-foot-11 forward from the Czech Republic, has started the past two games in Houston and Charlotte, supplying meager totals of seven points, 11 rebounds, four assists and five steals. But he has aided the Wizards in becoming more of a ball-hawking team on defense and a more unselfish team on offense, by always looking to make the extra pass and setting screens to help his teammates get a better look at the rim.

“I try to play hard every game and do my best on the court,” Vesely said. “That’s what I do. I’m not saying I can do better or less. I just try to play my game.”

During the Wizards’ 102-99 victory over the Bobcats on Saturday, Vesely played a critical role in helping them finish the first half on a 13-4 run. He cut to the basket and caught a pass from JaVale McGee for a dunk, then after John Wall knocked the ball away from Bobcats forward Boris Diaw, Vesely threw the ball ahead — where only Wall could get it — leading to Wall’s emphatic slam over Tyrus Thomas.

In the third quarter, Vesely ran to Bobcats guard Kemba Walker to form a wall for Wall, who slid around the screen and used the ample space provided to zip a left-handed pass to McGee for a dunk.

Wittman wants the Wizards to establish an identity as a high-speed, up-tempo team and Vesely’s ability to run the floor and finish was one of the reasons Ernie Grunfeld drafted him with the sixth overall pick last June, believing his skills could complement a track star in high tops such as Wall.

“He’s been playing great,” Wall said. “He’s not nobody that’s going to really score in the basket or make jump shots. He’s going to do little things, boxing out, getting rebounds, being active on the ball, active on the boards. He’s just figuring out his role and showing y’all what he can do.”

Vesely, 21, is not some overwhelmed rookie, having spent the past three seasons playing professionally for Partizan Belgrade in Serbia. He is averaging 2.6 points and 2.9 rebounds in 13 games this season, and is still trying to get adjusted to the NBA game, which he said is “faster, and it’s much more stronger than in Europe.”

His season was delayed as he missed nearly three weeks of action because of a hip injury. Former coach Flip Saunders tried to ease Vesely into the rotation, giving him spot minutes to provide just enough high-energy and highlight plays to leave fans craving more. Veteran Rashard Lewis has started calling Vesely a “kangaroo” because “he’s always bouncing around all over the place.”

Vesely doesn’t try to play outside of what he is. A noted dunker, he has taken 34 field goal attempts — but only six outside of three feet. After watching Vesely add six points, six rebounds and three blocked shots in just 19 minutes in his first game as coach, Wittman decided to give him his first start in Houston.

Vesely played well in the first half, scoring five of the Wizards’ first seven points, including a rapid, two-hand putback dunk on a Wall miss and a spin move and layup. But he didn’t score the rest of the game, and Rockets forward Luis Scola abused him, scoring 19 points in just three quarters. Scola neutralized Vesely’s strengths — length, quickness and athleticism — by using a more measured, disciplined means to attack him with baseline jumpers and jump hooks.

“Me throwing him in there against Scola, probably wasn’t the nicest thing for me to do,” Wittman said with a chuckle. “But this is a kid that can handle something like that. He’s got a very good, strong mind. He’s going to file that. We’re done facing Houston, but I’m sure when he faces Scola, he’s going to understand what he has to do differently. This is just a learning process for him.”

Vesely said he learned from getting schooled by Scola. “He’s a very, very smart player. He’s a little bit stronger than me, so it was nice experience. And I hope I will get another one with him.

“It is my first year in the NBA, so it was a surprise to me,” Vesely said of moving into the starting lineup. “It’s nothing new to me. It’s just different world I have to get used to. I just try to play hard every time, if I come from bench or starting first lineup.”

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.



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