You could sense the good vibes coming out of Washington Wizards media day Friday afternoon at Verizon Center. The event used to signal the start of another 50- or 60-loss season. But as training camp opens Saturday at George Mason, the Wizards return to work with something new: Hope.
The Wizards and their fans should be excited; actually being picked to succeed is a welcome change of pace. Second-year shooting guard Bradley Beal possesses the talent to become a star, productive point guard John Wall has a lucrative long-term deal that should keep him in Washington for years to come and wing forward Otto Porter Jr. is the most mature, do-it-all rookie you’ll ever meet.
The organization has been reenergized by young players who are committed to playing the right way and veterans — power forward-center Nene and center Emeka Okafor set a good example — capable of showing them how. Even with Okafor sidelined indefinitely because of a herniated disk in his neck, the roster still is good enough to earn the team’s first postseason berth in six seasons.
“Our goal is definitely to get back to the playoffs,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld said.
In an outstanding rookie season cut short by injury, Beal proved he is a cornerstone player. Efficient long-range shooting, outstanding court awareness, toughness on defense — Beal has the total package. “Pure talent,” Nene said of Beal.
Count on Beal to be a top-of-the-roster leader for a decade or so, but there’s no one higher on the team’s pecking order than Wall.
Wizards management made that clear in July when it rewarded Wall with a maximum contract extension of about $80 million. Last season, the Wizards were wretched in their first 33 games (5-28) while Wall was sidelined because of a knee injury. They were almost a .500 team (24-25) after he returned.
Wall’s ability to penetrate (his athleticism is his biggest asset) helped Beal and long-range shooter Martell Webster, who’s coming off a career year, shoot better than 50 percent on corner three-point attempts when Wall was in the lineup, according to research by the Wizards. “Obviously, John showed what a difference he can make,” Grunfeld said.
There’s no question Wall, who averaged a career-best 18.5 points last season, is a good player. He’s also a former No. 1 overall pick who has missed 46 games in his first three seasons and has never been selected to an all-star game. Any way you crunch the numbers, Wall did not prove he deserved a maximum contract.
In the NBA, though, players are paid based on many factors. What they actually deserve often is down on the list. Owner Ted Leonsis gave Wall the financial security he wanted. To whom much is given, much is expected: Wall must lead the playoff charge.
Wall and Beal can count on Porter for help. The former Georgetown all-American looks like a perfect long-term fit for the Wizards. “He absorbs everything,” Webster said.
During two seasons with the Hoyas, Porter, 20, displayed maturity way beyond his years. Georgetown Coach John Thompson III put it best when he once told me, “Otto isn’t low-maintenance — he’s no-maintenance.”
In college, Porter was a productive midrange scorer, comfortable playing with his back to the basket and great at making plays that resulted in his teammates scoring. In the NBA, Porter should be able to guard forwards and guards on the perimeter. That would please defensive-minded Coach Randy Wittman.
After drafting Porter with the third overall pick, Grunfeld remained on a roll in the offseason. The Wizards needed to improve at backup point guard, and every team could use a power forward who can do more than simply bang down low. Grunfeld signed proven reserve floor leader Eric Maynor and 6-foot-9 forward Al Harrington, who has made 35.2 percent of his three-pointers in a 15-year career.
Fortunately for Maynor and Harrington, they have joined a much better organization than the one Wall entered three years ago. “We’ve got a really good blend of guys who believe not only in what we’re trying to do but in each other,” Wittman said. “This is the start of my fifth year [with the organization] . . . and we haven’t always had that here.”
The knuckleheads are long gone, the team has talent and depth and the coaches and players are on the same page. This new Wizards story definitely seems worth following.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.