The Washington Wizards have signed Paul Pierce to a two-year contract, providing veteran leadership to a young playoff team. Here's what you should know about the 10-time all-star and likely Hall of Famer. (Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

Paul Pierce answered his phone in Las Vegas and found Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, a close friend and Celtics teammate for 17 games in 2008, on the other end of the line with an unlikely recruiting pitch.

It was July, Pierce recalled Monday, and Pierce was a free agent for the first time in his 17-year career. He was cognizant of the Wizards’ sticky situation, that Trevor Ariza had just stunned them by signing with the Houston Rockets and left the Wizards without a starting small forward. But until Cassell reached out, the Wizards were an afterthought. Pierce’s 37th birthday was nearing and he was chasing a second championship. Those aspirations meant he had envisioned joining one of the sport’s perennial contenders. So, not the Wizards.

“Washington wasn’t really on my radar,” Pierce admitted.

But Cassell was persistent. He highlighted the Wizards’ promising back court of John Wall and Bradley Beal. He emphasized the positive culture in Washington, assuring Pierce the toxicity from recent years was removed. He reminded Pierce that the Wizards were a team on the rise in the Eastern Conference, an ascendance Pierce admired from Brooklyn last season.

Shortly after the call concluded, Pierce phoned Cassell back with questions. They then scheduled dinner. A day later, after conversations with Wizards officials further up the ladder, Pierce shocked the industry and agreed to terms for the unlikeliest of marriages. It turned out to be Cassell’s final act as a Wizards assistant coach — a few weeks later he agreed to join Doc Rivers’s staff with the Los Angeles Clippers.

“Sam is a guy that values friendships and is a guy I trust,” Pierce told The Washington Post on Monday at Wizards media day, where he spoke to the media for the first time since joining the Wizards. “I don’t know who [else] I would have really talked to that really could have convinced me to come, so it’s a good likelihood that I probably wouldn’t have. The timing worked out.”

Thanks to Cassell, the Wizards feature a likely Hall of Famer hellbent on providing the leadership necessary to improve on last season’s unforeseen run to the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Pierce’s first objective is to instill confidence. He scans the Eastern Conference landscape and doesn’t see a clear-cut favorite. He respects LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers, but questioned whether they can gel immediately. He mentioned the Chicago Bulls, but pointed out “they haven’t won anything.”

“So why not us?” Pierce proclaimed. “And that’s what I try to bring to this ballclub and that’s what I try to tell them in the locker room. Why not us?”

In his two weeks in the District, Pierce has made his presence felt. He arrived at Verizon Center before any of his new teammates every day for workouts and delivered his signature trash talk during pickup games. He challenged them to play better at home — where they finished 23-23, including the playoffs, last season — and told Bradley Beal and John Wall they must improve from the free-throw line.

“I’m a player that’s going to say what I feel,” Pierce said. “If I’m thinking it and I feel like it’s something that needs to be said, I’ll say it. I’m not going to be a pushover kind of leader.”

Yet, Pierce made sure to describe his role as more like that of a consultant. He insisted Wall and Beal are the Wizards’ “engine” and the keys to the team’s success. He spoke on his versatility and proven shot-making ability on the court, but explained his value will come as a complementary piece with intangibles to offer from his vast experience.

“For us to be able to have him on this team, it’s a great look for us,” Beal said. “It just shows what we’re capable of doing. This is a young team on the rise, and he wanted to be a part of it.”

Pierce openly acknowledged he would not have joined the Wizards just a few years ago. The Wizards were a floundering franchise immersed in a bizarre controversy and annual disappointment, and Pierce was busy contending for championships with the Celtics.

That the Wizards were able to lure him with a two-year, $10.8 million contract stunned not only the industry, but his new teammates. Beal’s first reaction was simply, “Wow.” Nene was at Fogo de Chão, a popular Brazilian chain steakhouse, with some friends in Denver when he first heard the news.

“I said, ‘No that’s a joke,’” the Wizards’ starting power forward remembered Monday.

But it wasn’t. Pierce, because of Sam Cassell, is now the Wizards’ starting small forward and his signing is the latest evidence of the Wizards’ climb up the NBA hierarchy.

“He did a good job of convincing me,” Pierce said, “even though he left me when I got here.”