Nene’s sole purpose this offseason was to protect his banged-up body, to practically encase himself in bubble wrap after having most of his tenure with the Washington Wizards restricted because of a nagging bout of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
The Brazilian big man avoided contact, stayed off the basketball court and played pickup soccer instead, the grass providing a softer surface for his delicate feet and sometimes-creaky knees. The plan to rest and receive treatment so that he would be fully healthy for the upcoming season went perfectly — until Nene decided to play a pickup basketball game at Verizon Center a few days before training camp and nearly suffered a serious injury to his left pinkie finger.
“I almost lost my finger last Monday,” Nene said with a grin as he glanced down at the protective splint on his left hand. “Guy tried to grab rebound, forgot the ball and kept my finger. Almost broke. Almost.”
“Almost” wasn’t going to keep Nene from finally getting started. He said he feels “fresh” and hasn’t been held back through any part of camp. He admitted to having another momentary scare during Monday’s practice, when Kevin Seraphin stepped on his foot and nearly twisted his ankle.
“I know I have ice on my knee and my foot, but it’s been good. I’m happy to do the training camp,” Nene said Monday after the Wizards’ third camp practice, which was held at George Mason’s Recreation Athletic Complex. “It’s hard to be outside and see everybody on the court, you know, running, getting tired. But everybody is right there for each other having fun. It’s something I missed last season.”
Nene, who came to the Wizards in a midseason trade with the Denver Nuggets in February 2012, missed all of training camp and the first nine games of last season as he recovered from the foot injury he aggravated while playing for his native country in the London Olympics. In 11 / 2 seasons with the Wizards, he has played just 72 of a possible 107 games. The team won just seven of the contests he missed.
“If I feel good, everything is going to be good,” Nene said. “To be 12 years [in the NBA] playing the way I play, I’m good. I know what I’m supposed to do on the court. I just want to feel good. If I’m not healthy, it don’t matter. If I can shoot 100 percent three-point [range], that doesn’t matter if I can’t play. So that was my focus this summer.”
Coach Randy Wittman has been pleased with what he has seen from Nene thus far: “He’s been really good. I see a different Nene than I saw last year. This summer was important for him. To rest. Get his body right. Last year was tough . . . for him, from a conditioning, getting your legs underneath you, being able to be the player he’s capable of being. I don’t think he was able to do that last year . . . because of the fighting through not playing, injuries, probably not being in the best condition basketball-wise.”
The Wizards were 15-7 last season when they were able to get Nene, John Wall and Bradley Beal on the floor together. But Nene labored through most of the campaign, averaging 12.6 points and shooting 48 percent, his lowest production in five seasons. Near the end of the season, Nene mentioned that the nonstop pain had him contemplating retirement, even though he has three years and $39 million remaining on his contract.
Nene said he no longer has those thoughts.
“That time is different than it is right now. I take care of my body,” he said. “I take care of my mind and a new season has come. New players, new additions, let’s see what God has for us.”
The Wizards were already hit with a setback with the loss of Emeka Okafor, the team’s defensive anchor who is out indefinitely with a neck injury. Nene and Okafor formed an immediate chemistry, with the veteran big men often wordlessly switching on defense. In Okafor’s absence, the 6-foot-11 Nene will spend more time at center and the Wizards will have to depend on less experienced big men Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker or veteran Al Harrington.
“We have a man down, so the job of the team is to cover the gap right now,” said Nene, who was initially reluctant about moving to center without Okafor but said, “If we need to do things, sacrifice, then we will sacrifice.”
Since Nene joined the Wizards, the team has added more veteran pieces, and Wall and Beal are beginning to mature. But Nene doesn’t want to get ahead of himself by declaring the franchise is certain to make the playoffs.
“I'm not singer. I don’t like to work with my mouth. I work with my action,” Nene said. “If you say something before that happens, you need to prove, you need to own your words. We have a great team, we have a good team, competitive team, but still must work hard to deserve that position.”