For a team that has lost nearly 72 percent of its games the past three seasons and made few significant roster upgrades to a 23-win squad, the Washington Wizards are oddly optimistic heading into training camp on Friday at Verizon Center.
The enthusiasm is rooted in the expected development of second-year point guard John Wall, the improved health of Andray Blatche and Rashard Lewis, the continued progression of center JaVale McGee, the spunk of Jordan Crawford and the addition of three rookies who fill roles immediately.
The bad memories have apparently been erased, or glossed over like the fresh coat of paint and wax that covers the red, white and blue court the team will now play on. They will have a new retro look and plenty of hope.
Nick Young, who led the team in scoring last season, is still home in Los Angeles as he tests restricted free agency, but that hasn’t tempered the sentiment among the players that they could take advantage of a shortened, 66-game season and end a four-year postseason drought.
“We’re trying to make a playoff run. That’s pretty much the goal,” Crawford said. “We’re tying to build chemistry because there’s going to be a lot of cats going at us this year. They kind of know us a little but better, but we don’t really have a name. They know we can play a little bit so we just try to compete. Anybody that comes at us, we just go right back at them.”
The nearly five-month lockout officially ended on Thursday, as a majority of the NBA players and owners voted to accept the league’s latest collective bargaining agreement and the Wizards later gathered for a team dinner at a downtown hotel. Training camp, which was rushed with a tentative settlement reached less than two weeks ago, will be more unusual than in years past, as the team won’t be able to sign rookies or free agents until 2 p.m. on the opening day of camp.
The Wizards will hold their first practice at 6 p.m. and have their season opener 17 days later when they host the New Jersey Nets at Verizon Center. With just two preseason games against the Philadelphia 76ers, there is little time for coaches to prepare and for players to make an impression.
“Your evaluation process is going to come the first time you step on the floor in practice,” Coach Flip Saunders said. “So that’s why I personally like the way it’s set up. I like the way the training camp is going to be, a shortened training camp and the things we’re going to do because I think it’s going to be more conducive for a young team to really grow in that time.”
Even with the expected addition of free agent guard Roger Mason Jr., the Wizards would have only three players on the roster who have appeared in the playoffs. They also have a roster with nine players who are age 24 and younger — including Wall, who remains the youngest player on the team at 21. With a collection of high-energy 20-somethings, the Wizards shouldn’t have a problem keeping up with a condensed schedule that will see the team playing 16 sets of back-to-back games and two sets of five games in six nights.
“We’ve got a lot of healthy legs, a lot of young legs, so the fact that we’re having a lot of back-to-backs and a lot of close games, without rest, it’s really going to be at our advantage,” McGee said. “Definitely thinking playoffs. It’ll be my first playoffs and I think we can do it in a 66-game season.”
Wall doesn’t want youth to be an excuse and is prepared to truly fulfill his duties as team captain after withstanding a rookie season in which he gained a better understanding of the challenges he faces each night at the league’s marquee position. He also studied film of the league’s best point guards, learned from his mistakes, and most importantly, regained some of the explosiveness he had lost while dealing with nagging injuries all last season.
“This year can be fun. I’m a veteran now, not a big-time veteran but I’m in my second year, so I know a lot more than what I did last year,” Wall said. “I think my job, man, is to basically be a leader on and off the court.”
Saunders said Wall probably learned the NBA was a little more difficult than he anticipated, but added that he expects the cornerstone of the rebuilding efforts to provide more than dazzling plays and better statistics. “His success is judged not by his personal success, but by the success of our team. That’s the thing we stressed to him at the end of the year. I think he stressed that a lot to himself.”
Lewis, 32, is the most seasoned player on the roster, having played 13 seasons and appearing in 64 playoff games. He compared the young talent on the Wizards to some of the teams he played with in Seattle and said the team shouldn’t settle for mediocrity.
“We can’t play on the outside looking in. We’ve got to try to keep up pace with everybody and try to be on the inside trying to hold our position,” Lewis said. “That’s going to be one thing in the meeting that we’re going to have to express to all the guys is there’s not a lot of room for error. You’ve got to try and stay the pace of getting into the playoffs.”
Blatche said he spoke with Wall a few times this offseason and they both won’t be satisfied with yet another lottery season. “We have high expectation of making the playoffs. It’s something that we want to do,” Blatche said recently. “That’s something I want to be a part of, and that’s something me and John got to have the rest of our teammates come on board with us.”
Wall said his desire to reach the postseason was fueled by attending a few playoff games last spring: “It’s not fun just sitting there in the stands.”
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