The Washington Wizards used to be our go-to team for embarrassing antics and head-slapping moves, but no more. Ernie Grunfeld calmly snapped up three players with resumes of more than two sentences Thursday night in the NBA draft, even as the Nationals — the above-.500 Nationals — were imploding.
Grunfeld wisely avoided the one-and-done Rat Pack of college freshmen and in the first round, with the sixth pick, he took exactly who we all thought he would take: Jan Vesely of the Czech Republic. The Wizards might have wanted Enes Kanter of Turkey — and he certainly wanted the Wizards — but he was chosen three slots earlier, and the Wizards turned back to Vesely, one of five foreign-born players taken in the top 10.
Vesely has played professionally overseas in Slovenia and Serbia. Those credentials mean much more than they did even a decade ago. The number of European players in the league has increased because the quality of play in those leagues has increased. That means Vesely arrives in Washington with a shorter learning curve than a lot of college players.
You could tell Vesely is a more mature player than your typical American college freshman by the way he grabbed girlfriend Eva Kodouskova and gave her a very grown-up kiss after David Stern called his name. John Wall may plant a few wet ones on Vesely himself if he can handle the alley-oop the way the Wizards think he can. At any rate, Vesely’s kiss may have been the highlight of the draft, which is a sad commentary on the draft, but still.
(Note to Stern: You fill your front rows with celebrities at nearly every game. Check your ego at the stage door and consider asking one of them to host the draft. It might help elevate the broadcast to the level of “watchable.”)
Kyrie Irving may go down in history as the only No. 1 draft pick whose college uniform never needed laundering. Slight exaggeration, but only slight. The Wizards went in the other direction, picking two more players who each stayed in college three years. Three! Amazing!
Chris Singleton of Florida State was expected to be a lottery pick, but to the Wizards’ surprise — and Singleton’s — he dropped to No. 18, and Grunfeld didn’t miss his chance. Singleton was twice named the ACC defensive player of the year, and defense is an area in which the Wizards needed help. (That list also included offense, rebounding and pretty much everything else.)
At No. 34, they grabbed another three-year player, Shelvin Mack, who played in the past two NCAA championship games with Butler. He’ll back up Wall. Mack also was projected to go higher, so again, the Wizards did better than expected.
Vesely, Mack and Singleton are 21. That makes them all older than Wall, last year’s No. 1 overall pick and the future of the Wizards.
So to sum up: The Wizards got three players who appear to be NBA-ready. (If only the lockout-bound league was NBA-ready as well.) The Wizards traded away no one. And they even made positive headlines — amazing how much more palatable a big smooch is than, say, guns. (New motto: Make love, not war?) That’s a much-needed win for Grunfeld, owner Ted Leonsis and their plan for a slow but steady rebuilding of this team.
And on the same day the Wizards earned a solid A, the Nationals . . . well, it’s hard to know how to grade the Nationals after Thursday’s shenanigans. Time will tell if Jim Riggleman’s decision to take his ball and go home will put an end to their recent improvement or light an even bigger fire among the players he deserted. For me, refusing to get on the bus gets Riggleman an F.
Riggleman wanted a long-term guarantee. It’s never been any secret that he probably wasn’t the Nats’ pick for the long haul — but there was no reason Riggleman couldn’t have changed that thinking.
It would just require him to, oh, I don’t know, stay. Baseball’s a funny sport, and he’ll find another job; it’s nearly impossible to get black-balled in coaching, no matter what the sport.
But I’m not sure I’d take a chance on a guy who makes the decision to walk away basically during the course of a matinee — and a sweep at that.
It’s not often in recent years that the Wizards have had an advantage over other local teams — or their opponents, or even fate.
They are working on a slow rebuilding plan, as are the Nats. Thursday, the Wizards made solid decisions and took some big steps. The Nats . . . well, the Nats may not have taken a step back, but they’ve certainly taken a step sideways.