Ted Leonsis was understandably disappointed when he heard that John Wall was likely to miss the first month of the regular season with a stress injury in his left knee, but relief soon followed when Leonsis discovered that the Washington Wizards caught the problem before it became serious and required surgery.
Leonsis moved on to acceptance this week while shooting standstill jumpers with Wall at George Mason’s Patriot Center and hearing that the foundation of the Wizards’ rebuilding efforts was upbeat about his injury. As he attempted to teach Wall how Hall of Famer Sam Jones made a living using the glass on his jumper, Leonsis also noticed a change in Wall: His shooting form was more refined, his voice deeper and his body more defined.
“He’s becoming a man,” Leonsis said of Wall, who turned 22 last month.
Wall is the Wizards’ longest tenured player only two years after Leonsis picked him No. 1 overall, and he is representative of the organization in many ways – with his growth and untapped potential.
The delay in Wall’s season debut, combined with the absence of Nene (out with a left foot injury), has tempered some of the enthusiasm during training camp. It has also forced Leonsis to step back some from his comments on draft night that after four consecutive losing seasons, another trip to the lottery would be “unacceptable.”
“We would all find it unacceptable if we finished with the second- or third-worst record in the NBA this year,” Leonsis said this week. “That would be a failure and the failure would start with me.”
Leonsis said his franchise has been “pummeled” for failing to escape the Eastern Conference cellar the past two seasons, but he remains “steadfast” in the rebuilding efforts led by team President Ernie Grunfeld. The Wizards have completed a dramatic roster turnover, with only one player – Cartier Martin – remaining from the team when he took over. The additions of Nene, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Bradley Beal and Martell Webster have Leonsis excited about a team that he believes is already stockpiled with young talent in Kevin Seraphin, Jordan Crawford and Trevor Booker.
“We’re in a much better position. We will get better because our young players have now been seasoned,” Leonsis said. “There are a lot of players here that really want to do what’s necessary to win. I find that refreshing. I don’t hear a lot about, “Me, my contract, my free agent year.” I hear, ‘What can we do to contribute? What’s expected of me? What will be the definitions of success for the team?’ That to me is a big cultural step that we’ve taken.”
Since Leonsis took over as owner, the Wizards haven’t made any major free agent acquisitions, with none signing for more than one year and recently added swingman Webster and Josh Howard the only player to sign for more. The day when the Wizards become a destination will come, Leonsis said, but “this offseason wasn’t that time.”
“All of the stars and moon will have to align the right way. I’m not shy about spending money and going and getting the right player,” he said. “I am very confident that when the time’s right and the opportunity’s right, that we’ll be able to get a transformative player by not trading, by not having to finish high in the draft. . . . I feel we’re doing the right things. I know that the fan base and, frankly, the media would like the magic wand waved and have a team with three superstars here overnight. But I lost the magic wand. I’m having to do it the old-fashioned, authentic way, which is I think the way you’re built to last.”
Leonsis wants to make the atmosphere around the Wizards more attractive on and off the court, and spoke about renovations being done to the locker room at Verizon Center and eventual plans to have a Wizards practice facility similar to the Capitals’ Kettler Iceplex.
This month has seemingly been filled with disappointment for Leonsis, with the NHL locking out its players, Alex Ovechkin threatening to stay in Russia, the WNBA’s Mystics getting the fourth pick in the lottery after finishing with the league’s worst record and Wall going down with an injury before the season began. Still Leonsis has tried to keep it all in perspective.
“I kind of play the ball where it lies,” Leonsis said. “That’s the thing about sports. It’s the hardest industry, business I know. What other business do Ping-Pong balls drive a lot of your success, and make your investment worth more or less. . . . It’s why, when you overcome all of those things and you win, why it’s so exhilarating. That’s why the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is the biggest payoff in any business.”
Leonsis continues to wait for that payoff, but for now, he will settle for having Wall back .
“He’s everything you’d want in a young player, mature leader, someone who puts that pressure on him,” Leonsis said, refusing to accept that the Wizards won’t be able to compete in his absence and take off when Wall returns.
“Why not try to make the playoffs? Just a couple games over .500 seems to get you there and that’s how the guys are looking at it. So who am I to argue to with the players and the coaches? They feel upbeat, so that’s why I feel upbeat.”