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Wizards’ Flip Saunders looking for ‘popcorn’ players as preseason debut approaches

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With a compressed training camp complete and the first preseason game set for Friday night, Washington Wizards Coach Flip Saunders was thinking popcorn during his news conference on media day at Verizon Center. Specifically, Saunders wondered aloud which players on this rebooted version of the Wizards would be at their best when the smell of that game-day snack wafts through the arena.

Saunders predictably mentioned John Wall off the bat as one of those spotlight players. Last year’s No. 1 overall pick is the foundation upon which the Wizards’ front office is constructing long term, and with a full season behind him, the point guard’s authority in the locker room is that much more pronounced.

Saunders also referenced Jordan Crawford, a second-year guard who averaged nearly 12 points per game with Washington last season, and Andray Blatche, the enigmatic forward with a game that at times can be as frustrating as it is promising.

“There’s certain players, when you step in the gym and they smell the popcorn, they play at another level,” Saunders said. “Popcorn-type players, so I’m anxious to see tomorrow what players that we have when they walk into that gym that their game goes to a new level. You have some players that play great in practice, and that doesn’t translate as far as into games. Hopefully we don’t have too many of those players.”

The Wizards open the preseason at home against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday, and the teams will play again on Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center in the final preseason game. By that time, Saunders figures to have a better feel for which veterans are fully committed to what owner Ted Leonsis called a change in culture and which newcomers are the best fit to spur that growth.

At the top of the list following the week-long training camp are rookies Jan Veseley and Chris Singleton. Veseley was the Wizards’ No. 6 pick overall in this year’s NBA draft, and Singleton arrived at No. 18 of the first round.

Veseley is particularly intriguing because of his ability to finish in fast-break and unsettled situations despite being listed at 6 feet 11. Washington last season led the NBA in fast-break opportunities, but too often turnovers or missed shots derailed them.

“He can jump out of the gym,” Blatche said of his new teammate, who played in the Euroleague for Partizan Belgrade before coming stateside.

Singleton, meantime, drew the assignment of defending virtually all of the front-court players during a training camp in which Saunders constantly preached defense and rebounding. That was just fine with Singleton, who was the unanimous ACC defensive player of the year last season with Florida State.

Even though Singleton, Veseley and Shelvin Mack, the 34th overall pick, are rookies, the newest member of the team is Ronny Turiaf, who joined the Wizards from the New York Knicks on Saturday in a multi-team deal. Turiaf has played with the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State and the Knicks over his six years in the NBA.

With a roster comprising many new faces and missing some old ones, most notably free agent Nick Young, Saunders said Friday’s preseason opener wasn’t so much about winning as making sure everyone gets involved.

“We’ve got to play a lot of people. We’ve got three rookies in there who’ve never played, point-blank,” Saunders said. “Those guys, you’ve got to get their feet wet if you expect them to play when you start [the regular season] on Dec. 26, so you’ve got to try to blend them in with the right players. I don’t know if I want to put all three rookies in there together.”

One thing’s for certain, though, and that’s Wall will be heavily involved regardless of who else is on the court. The face of the franchise immediately after being drafted, Wall averaged 8.3 assists per game last season, leading rookies in total assists. He also led rookies in steals.

If there was a deficiency in Wall’s game, it was shooting, so the MVP of last year’s rookie challenge spent a good portion of the offseason as well as training camp working on his form. Wall shot 41 percent last season and just below 30 percent from three-point range.

“I became a better shooter,” Wall said emphatically. “Throughout training camp I’ve been working on going under screens, and I’ve just been making jump shots. That’s the main thing I’ve been working on throughout the whole summer to make sure I’m prepared for the season.”

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