Free Jan Vesely: A Czech Perspective on Washington's Top 2011 Draft Pick
[Ed. Note: Lukas Kuba is TAI’s Czech correspondent for
everything Czech/Jan Vesely/Tomas Satoransky-related. —Kyle W.]
“Honza had a few challenges in front of him before. Whether in his sporting or personal life. He did overcome them all and I believe he’ll cope with this one successfully, too.”
—Jan Vesely’s Dad, Jan Sr.
In late June of 2011, captivated and transfixed by the whole Jan Vesely “Dunking Ninja” a k a “The Flying Czech” a k a “Blake-Griffin-Is-The-American-Jan-Vesely” buzz/euphoria both in the Czech Republic and in the Serbian capital of Belgrade (not to mention among the Wizards faithful), I embarked on a little foolish journey—I decided to revive my dead blog with a translated post of an interview Vesely gave to the Czech media, semi-hoping someone would read it and say “Good job man, I enjoyed this.” By the dawn of the morning in Washington, D.C., the DC Sports Bog’s Dan Steinberg unearthed the post and wrote about it, saying “… and with the Wizards now putting much stock in their newest first-round pick, Jan Vesely, someone’s gonna have to start monitoring the Czech media. The natural outlet would seem to be the Luke Mellow basketball blog.”
And thus the coverage of a fellow named Jan began, and since then, not a day has passed without me typing the words “jan veselý” into Google.cz and searching to see if there’s something Vesely-related worthy for translation.
I must say I’ve liked doing this, and why wouldn’t I when some diehard Wizards fan dubbed me ‘Luke_Mellow = Our New Hero’? Also, thanks to occasional e-mail/Facebook convos with Honza, his girlfriend Eva and his right-hand man Jura “El Checo” (who’s in charge with JV’s website, 24janvesely.com, where I assist some with content), I found out that they are really nice, genuine people, which may not sound like a revelation because we know Vesely is loved by his teammates everywhere, but it also does explain my unbreakable passion and fandom for “The Airwolf.” You want the good guys—and fellow countrymen—to succeed. As you could presume, with this season being a total letdown for Vesely fans, a part of my sports heart is hurting now. Not only do I have to deal with getting up late at night (or not sleeping until 4 a.m.) to watch Wizards games and deal with #WittmanFaces, I have to deal with DNP-CD’s for Honza and the subsequent bashing of him on message boards and the like. Even NBA.com’s David Aldridge has written that, “Vesely’s skillset is ‘nothing.’ “
Since it pains me to no end to read “worst player in the NBA” lines about Vesely (especially since I watched him blossom during his Partizan heydays into one of the preeminent young European ballplayers), I couldn’t resist going on a prolonged (one might say biased) rant about the positive hoops qualities I see in Jan—and that’s why I don’t think Jan’s NBA days are numbered, and that there’s a light at the end of a long tunnel.
If Vesely would run for the mayor of Belgrade, he’d win in a landslide. And if I counted how many times I’ve seen the phrase “Oooo Jane vrati se, Jane, Jane vrati se” pop up on Facebook or Twitter, I’d get dizzy.
[Quick tangent: In the worst case scenario, if Vesely’s NBA career doesn’t pan out as everyone had hoped, he’ll always have those rabid, crazy, fantastic and insane Partizan Belgrade fans at his side. The dude’s got a cult following in Serbia. If Vesely would run for the mayor of Belgrade, he’d win in a landslide. And if I counted how many times I’ve seen the phrase “Oooo Jane vrati se, Jane, Jane vrati se” pop up on Facebook or Twitter, I’d get dizzy. I don’t speak or understand Serbian, but as a Slav, I can easily surmise that it means “Jan, come back.” Svi smo srecni samo je Jan Veseli!!!]
“I loved to play tonight. Amazing team win. More games like this. #John2Jan” —Jan Vesely on Twitter, Jan. 14
(Will this end up being the best night of Jan’s soph season?)
First of all, Jan Vesely definitely is not the worst player in the entire NBA. As the sixth overall draft pick just half and a year ago, being buried at the end of the Wizards’ bench waiting for garbage time keeps bringing the wrath from the Wiz faithful. And boy, there’s a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric like “sucks at basketball,” “can’t do anything on the court,” and “can’t guard anyone,” seen on the message boards. Is he the next Joe Alexander, the ultimate draft bust? I don’t think so. Playing in the system that doesn’t play to strengths and losing more than you’re used to would mess up almost everyone’s head, not to mention shaking the confidence of someone who is just the third-youngest Wizard after John Wall and Bradley Beal. Even Vesely’s dad opined during the training camp period that Jan’s self-confidence can be an issue, noting his son has to be as confident as his American teammates in order to succeed in the NBA. When you see a player who can hit an open jumper, a trey and free throws in Europe, and then he airballs in the same situation in the NBA, there is something going on that is more mental than physical. Where the heck is the “Dunking Ninja” I used to watch playing in Europe? Where’s that joyful forward from Partizan Belgrade, finishing with resounding dunks on top of everyone’s head, exuding power plant-like energy on either side of the ball? Where’s the tremendous crowd igniter loved by Serbian masses?
Should we stop trying to find that guy? Well, the smart ones won’t. It’s way too early to just give up on Vesely. Just look at the per game stats of several PF-C players over their first two seasons in the league:
[G, GS, MP, FG, FGA, FG%, 3PA, FT, FTA, FT%, ORB, DRB, TRB, AST, STL, BLK, TOV, PF, PTS]
Anderson Varejao (Cavs 2004-06, age 22 & 23)
102, 4, 15.9, 1.7, 3.3, .520, 0.0, 1.3, 2.4, .524, 1.8, 3.0, 4.8, 0.4, 0.7, 0.5, 0.5, 2.4, 4.7
This season (Cavs): 9th year, 14.4 TRB / 0.6 BLK / 14.1 PTS
Marcin Gortat (Magic 2007-09, age 23 & 24)
66, 3, 9.7, 1.5, 2.9, .519, 0.0, 0.3, 0.6, .622, 1.4, 2.2, 3.6, 0.2, 0.2, 0.5, 0.3, 1.2, 3.4
This season (Suns): 8th year, 8.9 TRB / 1.8 BLK / 11.5 PTS
Larry Sanders (Bucks 2010-12, age 22 & 23)
112, 12, 13.4, 1.7, 4.0, .445, 0.0, 0.4, 0.7, .517, 1.1, 1.9, 3.0, 0.4, 0.5, 1.3, 0.7, 2.3, 3.9
This season (Bucks): 3rd year, 8.5 TRB / 3.1 BLK, 8.4 PTS
Omer Asik (Bulls 2010-12, age 24 & 25)
148, 2, 13.4, 1.1, 2.0, .529, 0.0, 0.8, 1.7, .479, 1.6, 2.9, 4.5, 0.4, 0.3, 0.8, 0.9, 1.8, 2.9
This season (Rockets): 3rd year, 11.4 TRB / 1.1 BLK / 10.2 PTS
Jan Vesely (Wizards 2011-13, age 21 & 22)
90*, 24*, 16.6, 1.7, 3.3, .523, 0.0, 0.5, 1.0, .451, 1.5, 2.2, 3.7, 0.7, 0.5, 0.5, 0.9, 2.6, 3.9
[*WAS has 35 games left]
[Stats through Feb. 4, basketball-reference.com]
Vesely’s not much different from the guys listed here. It’s stunning how many fans think/believe that next year could be Vesely’s last year in the NBA. The last time I checked, there’s not many long, athletic seven-footers running around. In case the Wizards give up on Vesely, you don’t think Gregg Popovich and his staff could make a good team player out of him?
Methinks the worst luck for Jan was beginning this season without John Wall. The Wall-less roster of the Washington Wizards was a terribly constructed team that didn’t put Vesely in the best situation to succeed. The leftover crop of bigs and guards could not really complement his skills. Vesely likes fast basketball and wants to run the court, but he can’t do it on his own. He’s good at moving and cutting without the ball, but the Wizards didn’t have any real playmakers who could find him at the perfect moment. Lots of people say it’s a shame that a top 10 pick is useless without a great, speedy point guard, but no one looks on the other side of the partnership: Jan has the ability to help make a PG’s job easier because of his high-revving motor and his ability to run.
No, he won’t ever be the best or second best player on an NBA team roster, but I do believe, in the right system, with the right players and a pretty good coach (perhaps not Mr. Randy Wittman), he can be a valuable rotation piece for an successful NBA contender. Jan is a guy who helps a good PG in a very subtle ways: setting solid screens, getting tip dunks, not demanding the ball much, and not taking up any particular space (and thus clogging driving lanes), while also not being a liability on defense. Teams definitely need at least one player like this.
Honza is also a guy who doesn’t stick out on the box score to casual fans, but I bet Wall would say “That‘s my guy, I love playing with him.” He contributes in ways that don’t make it into the box score and therefore aren’t considered in PER. Opponent passes deflected, rebounds tapped out to teammates, dribble penetrations stopped, shots contested, smart cuts to the basket (even if his teammates never deliver the ball), hockey assists, etc.—these are things Vesely brings to the table. Plus, he’s always solid in both the plus/minus and on-court/off-court stat categories.
I can’t say I agree with the way the Wizards organization has tried to make Vesely a power forward (and yes, even part-time center here and there) since day one of December 2011 mini training camp. Okay, he’s almost a seven-footer, but the majority of his career in Europe he was spent as a perimeter player. Basically, the Wizards have NEVER tried him as a small forward in an NBA game (really, look it up on 82games.com). They continuously kept telling him to put on weight to turn him into a 4/5, which he did last summer after being routinely bullied and just flat-out physically dominated by brawny big men in the paint during his rookie season. And he’s still lacking in the muscle department. As a lanky player, it’s difficult to all of a sudden put on a lot of weight, it has to be a day-by-day process (Vesely should fill into his body naturally over the next few years, even without being asked to bulk up). Now, the Airwolf’s got a slightly different body, and when you compare his movement on the court from his Partizan days to this season, it’s like … he has lost his athleticism a little. Some have said that Vesely came into 2012 training camp out of shape, that he didn’t work out enough during summer. B.S., I say. I’m friends with people close to him, and they frankly say he didn’t skip anything, and that he worked really hard. (Also worth noting that Vesely had a semi-serious problem with his Achilles tendon before camp started.) So the Wizards changed his position and asked him to change his body. They changed the way he plays the game, and now Vesely doesn’t have any trust from his head coach whatsoever—and everyone is all of a sudden shocked that he’s been struggling?
Vintage Vesely is at his best when he’s running the floor, moving to open spaces, cutting to the rim, and using his energy, smarts and tenacity to get second-chance points on the offensive end. He’s at his best when he’s contesting shots on the perimeter, using his length as the point man in a zone defense, disrupting the passing lanes, blocking shots on the backside, and using his size, motor, and quickness to generally wreak havoc. And actually, Vesely is pretty smart on the court for such a young player.
Instead, the Wizards are trying to have him defend post players who outweigh him and easily push him out of the paint. If this is the destiny from now on and Ves is a PF, it’s not the end of the world. He’s one of the Wizards’ best pick-and-roll defending big men, he sets quality screens (an underrated skill in basketball), he understands the value of spacing, and he really has a good head for moving the ball around a defense. As basketball experts can attest, these are fundamental skills that many young and talented bigs lack. Arguing about whether Vesely is “fundamentally sound” (words used by Wizards owner Ted Leonsis) doesn’t matter in the big picture. What matters is if the team can use those fundamental qualities he possesses to the fullest.
Conclusion: Vesely would function best when complemented by a bulky big who can guard in the post, a quick, pass-first point guard, and at least two perimeter shooters who can make his swing and reverse passes count. I still think he was a solid choice at No. 6 in his draft year. Yeah, I’m biased and want Vesely to succeed in the NBA, but he’s certainly not as bad as folks claim. The jury’s still out on Airwolf, at least for this season and the next. Good luck, Honza.
With the 2013 Wizards’ regular season at a half-way point, last week I randomly asked a few devout Jan Vesely Czech fans their views on The Airwolf’s (or The B-24 Liberator’s?) sophomore NBA season. The starting topic was Honza’s popularity in his homeland. Is the widespread approval start to wane, especially in comparison to his rookie campaign, which came after The Kiss? Here’s what they had to say.
Yon Pulkrabek (@pula77):
“I feel like there has definitely been a letdown in the enthusiasm for Vesely news this year compared with last year, especially earlier in the season when he wasn’t playing. It’s hard to follow a player when you never know if he’s going to play 10 minutes, five minutes, or not at all. I hope the recent upswing in Washington’s play and the return of John Wall will open up more opportunities for him on the court, which will then translate to more interest in his play from casual fans, who seem to have forgotten that there is a Czech player in the NBA. If that doesn’t happen, I hope he gets traded to a team where he can learn, grow, and prove that he has what it takes to play in the league.”
Jan Brabec (@johny4cz):
“I play basketball in a smallish town named Chocen (population of about 9,000). A majority of my teammates don’t watch NBA games; they know about Honza, but they don’t follow him that much. Only when something translated appears in the Czech media—mostly just a telegraphic statement in the style of “he played x amount of minutes, scored x points and had x rebounds.” There had been a lot of talk about John Wall’s comeback and how it would positively affect Vesely’s impact on games. But it didn’t happen. So this season is quite a big disappointment. People who follow the NBA closely opine regularly that Vesely doesn’t have what it takes to succeed in the league, because he’s got a defensive conception of the game, an awful jump shot, and isn’t ‘selfish’ enough. There’s often an argument that he should try playing for another team (I agree with this), e.g. the Cavaliers or the Raptors. Then we’d see if he can really play or he can’t. We’ll see how the situation evolves for him. Anyway, I wish him to become an impact player in the NBA.”
Honza Moucha (@demidge):
“Jan’s popularity here in the Czech Republic has definitely dropped a bit. I know some of my friends used to stay up late to watch Wizards game streams during Jan’s rookie season, and they just don’t do it anymore. We somewhat expected him to explode in his sophomore year, especially after we saw him have some really good outings at the end of the last season. Unfortunately, nothing happened. To be honest, the average Czech NBA fan doesn’t really care about all the ‘details’ such as the absence of John Wall, Wizards’ shortcuts in the rebuilding process, etc. Fans from here just want to see Jan dunk the ball and put up numbers, and when this doesn’t happen, they tend to sort of give up on him and stop paying attention.
“That’s the impression I got from talking to my friends and reading through some of the Internet discussions. The way I see it, everything comes down to Jan’s confidence on the court. And to be 100 percent honest with you, I think Flip Saunders and his staff kind of helped to destroy Jan’s confidence when he arrived in D.C. Take his jump shot, for example. This is a detail most people overlook. Jan arrived in the league as an almost-decent mid-range shooter. [Note: July 2011, Vesely in an on-line chat with Czech fans: “I’ve got a long career ahead of me in which I can work on shooting 3s.” If he said this today, he would be ridiculed by the entire NBA fandom. —Lukas Kuba] Not a sharpshooter, not a guy like Dirk (Nowitzki) or (Andrea) Bargnani, who could spread the floor as shooting big men, but definitely as a guy who had never hesitated to take a 15-footer before. A poor man’s Chris Bosh, who would make two out of five in Serbia. And when he arrived in D.C., Saunders and his crew started this ‘Oh my, your release is awful, we’re gonna have to fix that’ charade, hired a shooting specialist, and basically forced Jan to redevelop his jump shot technique from square one.
“Imagine how something like this shakes up your confidence. “Son, you’ve been shooting the ball wrong your whole career.” Please. Go look at Shawn Marion’s release. Heck, go look at Paul Pierce’s release. I thought this was ridiculous, really. No wonder he started air-balling free throws. And my guess is that the hit he took to his confidence really affected his overall play. Of course, I am just an outsider, I may be wrong … but I doubt it (Chuck Barkley voice). I also feel like his teammates underestimate his leaping ability and overlook him on offense. This is why Vesely can’t really thrive without John Wall, and why he would be just awesome with, say, (Ricky) Rubio. Every time I watch a Wizards game, I just catch myself screaming ‘throw it up for him, dumb-ass, what are you waiting for!!!’ at A.J. Price.”
Kamil Kroulik (@milkac_cze):
“Unfortunately, there’s not many basketball fans in my surroundings, and the few who are fans only watch the Czech domestic basketball league. That’s why, unfortunately, there’s so very few people who know who Jan Vesely is. In general, there’s very little interest in basketball in the Czech Rep., and JV has done nothing to improve that. In his rookie season, he had bad luck with injuries, plus it was the lockout-shortened season, and I think he had troubles getting used to everything out there, e.g., the NBA basketball rules, getting into foul trouble, or the more individualized concept of the game in America. At the end of last season, when the playing rotation was set and Vesely was getting more playing time, his play started to look promising, especially when John Wall was setting him up for beautiful finishes. But since the beginning, we could also see how the Wizards coaches didn’t know how to use Honza correctly, alternating him between positions. Even now I don’t think Coach Wittman knows how to use Honza. He had two very good games recently, I think he was the best player on the floor in the second quarter versus the Magic, and all of a sudden, since then, he didn’t play at all in five games.
“In the future it would be nice if Vesely cracked the rotation or if some other team traded for him, a team which fully uses his potential on the defensive end, in the transition game, and with his offensive rebounding and hustle. For a Czech (European) fan, it’s rough waiting until 1 a.m. to watch a game and then your favorite player sits on the bench the whole time, and then you have to go to work after four hours of sleep.”
Tomas Pecha (@tompecha):
“Honza Vesely doesn’t have a big name in Bohemia. Unfortunately, he’s not being talked about a lot and he’s not followed much. If I have to compare this season with his rookie year, last season it was much better, at least at the end of it.”
Bonus… Jan Vesely Sr.:
“… I remember when Honza left [from Czech Rep.] to Slovenia in the year 2006, he didn’t have it easy. He did play and practice with [Partizan Belgrade’s] junior basketball team, but he didn’t get much playing time with [Partizan’s] pro team though. That was pissing me off then. All along, we kept hearing that his time would come. I didn’t know it would be so, but I was always telling myself that the situation would get better. Many acquaintances, friends, experts and basketball coaches (as of today, they haven’t been fired yet) deterred us from Honza’s decision to go to the Balkans instead of Spain, where the majority of young Czech basketball players go to play. Then Honza moved up to the pro team, and then again came the period when he wasn’t playing and was only sitting on the bench. Again, there were insiders’ advices and expert opinions arguing why he ‘went East,’ why he doesn’t play, how he should play and the like.
“Today, I click on an internet article and I can’t stop wondering how many advices and opinions I see there. Of course, everyone’s got the right to voice his view. But hardly anybody [of those people] accomplished that much in basketball to knowledgeably judge and criticize him. In a way, isn’t it a sufficient success that Honza, as the third Czech ever, got to the NBA? To tell the truth, for the third time, Honza is standing in front of a situation that doesn’t look very good for his future. Most of the time he plays a few minutes, if he plays at all. It’s his second season, and everyone says that the second season is crucial for the future of an NBA player. But I believe in Honza’s success!!! I believe that it is a challenge for him. He had a few of such challenges in front of him before. Whether in his sporting or personal life, he did overcome them all, and I believe he‘ll cope with this one successfully, too. He’s got Eva, the whole family, buddies and friends behind him. I’m sure it’d help him if you would support him—you, his supporters, fans. I’m sure there are lots of you in the [Czech] Republic. Make use of the internet message boards or Honza’s Facebook or Twitter account. Keep writing and keep the fingers crossed for him. Thank you.”
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