Neither Wall nor Nene will be available when the new-look Wizards are unveiled for Saturday’s home opener against Boston at Verizon Center, as both players are dealing with injuries. But the remaining 13 players are eager to make an impression and put the dysfunctional days of being a bottom-feeder behind the franchise.
“Every time you’d see ESPN, we were on the ‘Not Top 10’ or something bad’s happening. So it’s always negative things coming toward this team,” said rookie Bradley Beal, the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA draft last June. “But I think this year we have a totally different team — a lot of new assets and guys who have great character on top of that. So I think this program is really on the uprise and it’s turning around. We have to prove that and show that out there.”
Beal will be one of four starters who weren’t on the Wizards’ roster last season, joining veterans Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, acquired in a pre-draft trade with New Orleans, and A.J. Price, who was signed as Wall’s primary backup in August.
IncludingMartell Webster, Jannero Pargo and Earl Barron, the Wizards (0-1) have seven new players from the end of last season. Just six players — all first-round draft picks from 2010 and 2011 — remain from last season’s opening day roster.
“It’s very sobering to have to enter a new season basically where John Wall is your most-tenured player. That was by design, and we knew we’d have to rebuild the team and we did it fast,” Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, who took over the franchise a few weeks before the team drafted Wall No. 1 overall in 2010, said last month. “To start the season with basically not a single player on the roster from when I bought the team . . . has anybody else ever tried that?”
While discussing the trade for Nene late last season, Celtics Coach Doc Rivers explained how the skilled big man from Brazil would help the Wizards on the floor. He then paused and said: “Forget all the other stuff. They needed a veteran on that team.”
The Wizards went with youth and inexperience during the initial stages of Wall’s career, relying on a talented but undisciplined trio of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young to play prominent roles on a team that collected piles of losses and laughter.
Wall won’t return from a stress injury in his left knee for another month, but he has managed to remain mostly upbeat despite the frustration of having to sit out since late September. He struggled to hide his displeasure through his first two seasons — a classic example being a loss to Toronto when he angrily motioned for McGee to get back on offense after McGee had sprinted downcourt to play defense without realizing his team had the ball.
“The group of guys we had was great guys and great players, they was just not used to winning when they played and kind of took into losing,” Wall said. “I don’t necessarily think the environment had to change. I don’t think we took the time to trust each other while we was with each other, so they made the changes. Something you have to deal with, the business part of the NBA.”
After seeing the growth of Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker after Nene arrived, the Wizards added more veterans with playoff experience and reputations for professionalism to expedite the growth of a roster that continues to rely heavily on youth. Wittman supported the moves, believing that previous team lacked the character and strength to overcome tough challenges.
“We needed to have better mental toughness and not give into things when they go bad,” Wittman said. “Whether it’s injuries, going through a losing streak. . . . You’ve got to be able to withstand those things mentally to have any chance physically to go out and perform. That was needed and that’s what we tried to do with a lot of things we did in the offseason.”
Throughout the preseason and even in the Wizards’ season-opening 94-84 loss in Cleveland — when Barron, one of the last players to make the team, played the entire fourth quarter over Okafor, the highest-paid player on the roster — Wittman also has created a competitive environment in which playing time is based on merit and performance rather than reputation or salary.
“I think that’s the first big step, culturally, to the road to, first, respectability, then competitiveness, then competing for a playoff spot, then being in the playoffs, then going deep in the playoffs, and building a team that can be generationally a contender,” Leonsis said. “The team we had last year, at times, I felt bad.”
Before joining the team in June, Okafor had heard stories about some of the crazy antics in Washington — “Just whatever ones made the headlines,” he said — but he remains optimistic that the remade roster offers hope for a different course from the past four lottery seasons.
“The playoffs are not a far reach at all,” Okafor said. “If we play together and as we mature, get our full cast on board, we'll be just fine.”
Nene, who remains out indefinitely because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot, said the Wizards need to focus only on what’s ahead of them. “The climate is very nice. What happened is in the past. The people that are here right now, they feel really happy with what’s going on.”