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October 23, 2012

Wall on the sidelines as Wizards get under way

WASHINGTON — One day during training camp, Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis was shooting standing-still jump shots with face-of-the-franchise John Wall. Leonsis used the moment to educate the point guard about Sam Jones, the Hall of Fame guard who could make a bank shot from just about anywhere on the court.

“I was just spending a little bit of time with John,” Leonsis said after leaving the court. “And his body’s changed. He’s thicker and bigger. His voice is deeper. He’s becoming a man.

“And then you realize he should be in college. He’d be a senior.”

Wall has indeed grown up a bit, having turned 22 last month as he begins his third season in the NBA. He figured this would be the year that would substantially define his career, the year he would show that he was fully worthy of being the No. 1 overall pick by the Wizards in 2010.

It still might happen, but the launch has been postponed.

Wall can only shoot stationary jumpers because he’s hurt, expected to miss the first month of the season after being diagnosed with the early stages of a stress injury to his left knee cap.

That should be all the heartbreak available to the Wizards, who have missed the playoffs in pitiable fashion for four straight years. They’ve finished more than 25 games under .500 each time during the drought, including the lockout-shortened season of 2011-12.

But there’s more. Their second-best player, Nene, has been idle as he deals with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. There’s no certainty he’ll be ready in time for the regular season opener against Cleveland on Oct. 30. Nene played only 11 games with the team after he was acquired in a trade late last season, but that was more than enough for coaches and teammates to be wowed by his skills and leadership.

As if that weren’t enough, preseason has consisted of one mishap after another, from Kevin Seraphin’s strained right calf to Trevor Booker’s nagging left hamstring to Emeka Okafor’s bout with food poisoning. Those aren’t long-term injuries, but they’ve wrecked any plans coach Randy Wittman had for establishing some sort of lineup continuity leading up to the games that count.

Wittman is in his first full season as Washington’s coach, having taken over from Flip Saunders in January, and he’s done more than his share of sighing and head-shaking as he’s answered questions about the health of his players. From the Department of Silver Linings, he came up with this explanation on how the adversity will help the team in the long run.

“You anticipate that when everybody gets back healthy, that the guys here that have gotten more playing time than they probably would are going to be better prepared to be playing,” Wittman said. “You hope when we’re all healthy that we’re a better team because of this happening.”

Still, it’s a stretch to expect the Wizards to end their lottery run this season. Not that such a turnaround isn’t possible, but it would require the team’s top players to perform up to their draft expectations. The team has no fewer than six players who were taken in the top seven overall: Wall, Jan Vesely, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster, Okafor and Nene.

Wall is correct when he says it’s time to elevate his game. He’s been a productive, exciting player over two seasons, but not yet worth No. 1 overall value. Vesely, taken No. 6 by the Wizards in 2011, will be a role player until he can prove he can make something other than a dunk. Beal, selection No. 3 by Washington this year, is just 19 and will need time to adjust to the NBA.

Leonsis, who directed team president Ernie Grunfeld to rebuild the team through the draft, is pinning much of his hopes on those three players.

“We had three years with a lot of picks, high picks,” Leonsis said. “And we’re hoping to see those picks grow before our eyes.”

Okafor (No. 2 overall in 2004) and Webster (No. 6 in 2005) were offseason additions, both having played for two other teams before landing in Washington. They have helped complete a stunningly quick makeover of the roster: The longest tenured player is now Cartier Martin, who was on the court for eight games for the Wizards at the end of the 2009-10 season.

As he and Grunfeld dismantled the rest of the pieces from the circus-like days of the Gilbert Arenas era, Leonsis repeatedly said that the Wizards had to get really bad before they could get really good. This year he thought they would start to be good, having said on draft day that another appearance in the lottery would be “unacceptable.”

Now he’s backed off, saying only that “the second- or third-worst record in the NBA” would be unacceptable. Nevertheless, he likes where the team is headed.

“We’re in a much better position. We will get better because our young players have now been seasoned,” Leonsis said. “There are a lot of players here that really want to do what’s necessary to win. I find that refreshing. I don’t hear a lot about, ‘Me, my contract, my free agent year.’ I hear, ‘What can we do to contribute? What’s expected of me? What will be the definitions of success for the team?’ That to me is a big cultural step that we’ve taken.”

“Why not try to make the playoffs?” the owner added. “Just a couple games over .500 seems to get you there, and that’s how the guys are looking at it. So who am I to argue to with the players and the coaches? They feel upbeat, so that’s why I feel upbeat.”

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