The Washington Wizards looked very much like a hodgepodge of unfamiliar parts in their preseason opener in Charlotte, as passes rarely hit their intended targets and players at times didn’t know whether their teammate planned to cut or stop.
Though he was often on the floor with players he didn’t play with last season, Shelvin Mack never had a problem remaining under control. On a team that committed 21 turnovers and had just 14 assists, Mack handed out half of those assists without any miscues and the Wizards outscored the Bobcats by two points when he was on the floor.
Mack struggled with knowing when to create shots for himself — something he grappled with both during his rookie season as John Wall’s primary backup at point guard and during summer league, when the Wizards handed him control of the team and he foundered. But he was talkative on the court and knew that the team needed to ride the shooting of rookie Bradley Beal and reserve Martell Webster for the Wizards to avoid getting run out the gym.
“You can tell he’s got a year under him,” Coach Randy Wittman said of Mack on Wednesday. “As a rookie you’re intimidated. Nobody’s going to take it easy on you. They’re going to go after you like fresh meat. He’s been positive and he’s made good steps. He’s still got to grow. He’s still got to do things he’s not doing right for us from a point guard standpoint, but he’s working on it.”
Mack finds himself in an unenviable position of trying to help the Wizards compete without Wall while also trying to fight for his own job. The Wizards signed A.J. Price after Mack’s poor showing in the summer league, then brought in veteran Jannero Pargo after Wall went down nearly two weeks ago with a stress injury in his left knee. Pargo is expected to make his debut on Thursday as the Wizards host the New York Knicks at Verizon Center in their lone home preseason game. That could cut into Mack’s opportunities — but certainly not his outlook.
“It’s a business. Have to stay positive,” said Mack, who has a partially guaranteed contract. “When you’re down, you’re not ready for the opportunity and it slips by.”
Mack credits his college experience at Butler for helping him to always look for the silver lining. When his good friend Gordon Hayward left for the NBA after Butler made its first ever trip to the national championship — losing to Duke in 2010 — Mack led the Bulldogs back to the title game the next year, where they lost to Connecticut.
“Shelvin had a great way about him that always lent to him being upbeat, and in his last two years of college, I thought it lent to everybody else being upbeat,” Butler Coach Brad Stevens said in a telephone interview. “And I thought that’s where he really had a nice influence on our team, beyond being one of our better players.”
Mack continues to have a similar affect on the Wizards. He quickly connected with Beal during summer league and has assisted in his adjustment to the NBA.
“Coach is always on our butts all the time . . . but throughout this whole thing, he’s always been the one pushing me and telling me to stay in the game. Even though sometimes things don’t go my way, just keep having fun, keep playing basketball,” Beal said of Mack, who assisted on both of Beal’s three-pointers against Charlotte.
Mack, the 34th pick of the 2011 NBA draft, was one of the primary offensive options at Butler, but Wittman is looking for him to be more of an extension of the coach on the floor as the point guard. After his summer league stumble, Mack gained some confidence in his ability to run a team at Tim Grgurich’s big man camp in Las Vegas, where he learned how to take care of the ball and make passes into tight spaces.
“He’s a winner,” Stevens said. “I think sometimes we get caught up in positions, but he’s a basketball player. He’s a tough kid. He’s a smart kid and you can’t put a price on a guy that raises the energy level in a room. And I knew this: whenever we went into a game, he was always positive. We always felt like we had a shot.”
Mack hasn’t had the easiest adjustment to the NBA, with the lockout forcing him to fend for himself before his rookie season, the Wizards firing Flip Saunders within his first month on the team and trying to learn a new position when the only other point guard was Wall, a second-year guard trying to find his way. Now, he has to play well simply to hold on.
“It’s been difficult, but you can only control what you can control,” Mack said.