Wiz “Kids” No More: No Such Thing as a Vegas Vacation for Vesely and Singleton
The most notable inclusions on the Wizards 2013 Las Vegas Summer League roster, Jan Vesely and Chris Singleton, have been there before. Sure, third overall pick Otto Porter will be on the roster as well, but that is par for the course for NBA rookies. Although we’ll certainly look at his contributions with a critical eye, the stakes for Porter aren’t as high.
For an NBA player, being on a summer league roster before your third year in the league must feel like waking up in the sweet summertime afternoon at your parents’ house months after they’ve issued you a “time-to-move-out” ultimatum. They’re your parents, so they’ll probably let you stay, but they’re frustrated, and you’re frustrated too. “Jan, we all want what’s best for you. If you could show some initiative and dominate this summer league, your father and I just know you could be the ideal three.”
Doesn’t anybody realize it’s the worst time in the last seventy years to be an extremely intriguing athletic specimen with terrific size and length? Issues, man, #issues.
Although Vesely and Singleton are entering their third year in the league, the mitigating factor here is that there was no Summer League play after they were drafted in 2011 due to the NBA labor dispute and lockout. This means that although this is their third summer with the Wizards (time flies!), it’s only their second opportunity to participate in the majesty of the Vegas league.
Still, missing out on Vegas during the lockout didn’t necessitate an anachronous return after their second year for recent Wizards draft picks Kevin Seraphin and Trevor Booker. Kevin Seraphin had an “excuse,” he spent last summer playing for Team France in the Olympics. But Trevor Booker? He informed the team late in the 2011-12 season that he wouldn’t be participating.
Non-participation before a third NBA season, it would seem, is more the norm for a first-round draft pick, regardless of a player’s role on the team or realistic status in the context of NBA competitiveness. The following first-round selections from the 2011 draft class have been confirmed to be participants in this year’s summer league tournaments, either in Orlando or Las Vegas:
- Charlotte: Bismack Biyombo (7th overall, one pick after Vesely)
- Chicago: Jimmy Butler (30th overall)
- New York: Iman Shumpert (17th overall)
- Oklahoma City: Reggie Jackson (24th overall)
- Orlando: Tobias Harris (19th overall)
- Phoenix: Marcus Morris (14th overall) and Markieff Morris (13th overall)
- Utah: Alec Burks (12th overall)
- Washington: Jan Vesely (6th overall) and Chris Singleton (18th overall)
So, twenty of the thirty first-round picks in 2011 won’t be participating. But ten will, and Washington is sending two of them.
In Washington’s first four Summer League contests of 2012, a buffed and beefed-up Vesely was, for the most part, mildly impressive. (Vesely only played two minutes in the fifth game due to an Achilles injury that he later claimed hampered his ability to work out and slowed his progress over the remainder of last summer.) His Las Vegas per game averages of 9.25 points (on 51.6 percent shooting), 6.5 rebounds, 1.75 assists, and 1.5 steals in 29 minutes per game were more palatable than what would follow: 51 games worth of 2.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, and 2.1 fouls in just 11.8 minutes per contest in the 2012-13 NBA season.
The most obvious takeaway from last year’s summer league, at least before the real games started, was that Vesely had worked hard to improve his outside shot. Opposing teams were happy to leave Vesely wide open, and Jan was confident enough to pull up and shoot when presented with a clean look. Vesely certainly didn’t set the desert on fire in Vegas, but for the hundreds (HUNDREDS) of Washington fans paying attention, the result was cause for a shy brand of optimism.
After a disappointing 2012-13 season, Vesely has identified a seemingly supreme lack of confidence as the jailor of his basketball potential. The confidence that so defined the summer of 2012 for Vesely went to a cabin in the Šumava Mountains, smoked a few cigars, and subscribed to Czech Basketmag. Optimism about the future is a defense mechanism for ballers and non-ballers alike, so it was no surprise that Vesely used the word seven times in a Czech language interview (conveniently translated by TAI’s Luke Mellow in two parts) in response to questions about necessaries for NBA ascendancy.
When asked whether the NBA Summer League and Eurobasket 2013 (Vesely will play for the Czech team) will represent opportunities to gain back the confidence he lost between last summer and this one, Jan responded that Eurobasket was, to him, a bigger opportunity for “gaining confidence” and showing that he can play. At this point, I’m tired of writing the word “confidence,” even if Jan isn’t tired of claiming that limited minutes caused him to lose his.
To a certain extent, I agree completely with Jan’s theory about in-game, on-the-court experience. Sporadic playing time and the ever-looming Randy Wittman vaudeville hook make it difficult to establish rhythm, to analyze and react to an opposing team’s set plays, to gain experience for the next game. A Henry Abbott piece about the importance of playing young’ns (and San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich’s success doing just that with the Spurs) does a great job of laying out the case for playing underdeveloped youth in heavy minutes, regardless of whether they’re NBA-ready. But those are the Spurs, and while they have the luxury of surrounding their raw talent with a championship-caliber supporting cast capable of winning despite significant individual setbacks, the Wizards may have exhausted their patience with underdeveloped young talent in the 2011-12 season, when youth was all they had. As Abbott’s article points out, Popovich is the exception. Most coaches aren’t going to give a player infinite latitude, especially when their play isn’t up to the NBA’s high competitive standard.
As mentioned above, it’s not exactly common in the NBA for a former first-round pick to be on a summer league roster before their third NBA season. It’s even more rare for a team to send two players who fit that description to Vegas. Last year, the following recent first-round picks who had played at least two consecutive years in the NBA participated in the Vegas Summer League:
- Byron Mullens (drafted 24th overall in 2009)
- Austin Daye (drafted 15th overall in 2009)
- Adam Morrison (drafted 3rd overall in 20,000 B.C.)
- Larry Sanders (drafted 15th overall in 2010)
- Xavier Henry (drafted 12th overall in 2010)
- Toney Douglas (drafted 29th overall in 2010)
- Luke Babbitt (drafted 16th overall in 2010)
If you were a casual fan of the NBA a few years ago, you might recognize some of those names. If you are a casual fan of the NBA in 2016, you will recognize less. Some look to have futures in the NBA as role players, but only Larry Sanders showed real stuff this past season: he has become a defensive force and an unexpected national favorite. It’s hard to not love a guy who reacts so amiably to being ejected. Being on a summer league roster after your sophomore year isn’t indicative of a final judgment on NBA viability, but it is indicative that something hasn’t gone as planned (especially for a 6th overall pick).
The obvious problem with viewing Summer League and Eurobasket as potential solutions to regular season problems is that the experience is brief and wildly dissimilar to NBA play. The Wizards will only play a handful of games in Vegas (at least five, and up to eight if the Wizards make the finals). The Czech Eurobasket team is slotted near the bottom of the power rankings, and it wouldn’t be wholly irresponsible to predict an early tournament exit for the Czech. A strong performance at Summer League or Eurobasket is an out-of-context success over a short period of time, not the definitive answer to getting a career back on track. However, there is something to be gained here.
It’s not intuitive, but a major problem for NBA coaches and players in the offseason is that games against opposing teams are hard to get. After the team mini-camp in Washington, where players work against each other, having the opportunity to match up against non-teammate opponents who are going hard is valuable. Add in the formalities of referees, shot clocks, and coaches (Wizards assistants Sam Cassell and Don Newman will be calling the shots in Vegas), and you have a venue for learning removed from the stresses of the NBA regular season. Speaking of learning, there will be practices. This structure alone could give both Vesely and Singleton a framework for their summer once they leave Vegas. Finally, while some of the graduated youth on the roster won’t be participating, they may be in Vegas to train and watch their team play. John Wall didn’t play last summer, but he attended the games, spent tons of time with Bradley Beal, and likely gave some useful advice to his young colleague.
And as a postscript to the more material benefits of participation, isn’t part of being a summer league “hero” coming back with reinvented “confidence” that you can compete with players who are in the conversation for rotation spots?
For Vesely, the appeal of playing with the Czech team at Eurobasket is more obvious. While D.C. fans are cauterizing their 2011 Draft wounds and Jan spends most of each game on the bench, Partizan (Vesely’s former pro club, in Belgrade, Serbia) fans want him back in Europe. It also doesn’t hurt that Eurobasket 2013 is in Slovenia, where Vesely first played as a pro. The experience of temporary adoration at Eurobasket might boost Vesely’s ego, but might also make the reality of competing against NBA talent that much more disheartening when the 2013-14 season starts up.
Washington’s Chris Singleton may not be trying to break into the NBA in the literal sense, having been a salaried member of the Wizards roster for two straight years, but he is trying to break into an increasingly crowded rotation. Singleton, a former ACC Defensive Player of the Year, has never fully adjusted to the NBA game. Many envisioned him as a bigger version of Bruce Bowen, a defensive specialist who could shoot the deep ball, but neither the 3 nor the D have been there. Like Vesely, he was drafted as a small forward. Also like Vesely, he probably won’t see much time at that position again with the Wizards. A power forward in smaller lineups seems to be Singleton’s niche for now. Per 82games.com, Singleton saw 17 percent of Washington’s time at PF last season and just 5 percent of the available time at SF.
Making the 3-pointer is probably the quickest way back into the Wizards rotation for Chris. The returns from last season aren’t propitious on that point: C-Sing shot .194 (7-36) from deep as a sophomore after a much better performance in his rookie season, where he shot .346 on 3-pointers (44-127). The drop can probably be partially attributed to the smaller sample size (less minutes, less attempts), but how much so?
For me, and others, it’s painful to watch Singleton struggle. I still have hope that he can find his game with the Wizards before they’re forced to make a contractual decision on whether he’s worth continued development. As I mentioned in his 2012-13 season review, a key with Singleton will be managing his learning curve and finding a challenging role somewhere between throwing him to the wolves without the experience to compete in his rookie season and keeping him near the end of the bench in his sophomore season.
In order to take advantage of limited minutes, Singleton will have to show Wittman something he hasn’t consistently displayed: intensity. Those #WittmanFace moments don’t come out of nowhere. Coach Wittman, in speaking about Singleton last season, often hinted that the young forward got lost on the court trying to think about how to play basketball instead of applying what he had already learned to a game in motion. The potential for repair of a player’s inability to naturally react winnows with the passage of time, and if Singleton can’t catch up soon, he could find himself starting over elsewhere.
Ultimately, both Singleton and Vesely will have to prove themselves to Coach Wittman in practice before they can get the minutes that they’ve been denied so far. There may be an opportunity to do so in a Wizards frontcourt that, behind Nene, Okafor, and Seraphin, is virtually nonexistent (apologies, Trevor Booker). The D-League is an option, but comes with its own drawbacks and could be a fatal blow to the all-important confidence index. Vesely, in his interview with Czech Basketmag, mentioned that the Wizards contemplated sending him down to the D-League, but eventually decided against it. Jan himself is firmly against the idea, and characterized it, perhaps unfairly, as an every-man-for-himself tryout. The other side of the argument, accepting Jan’s mythologization as true, is that an every-man-for-himself tryout could be exactly what he needs: a chance to improve his severely lacking one-on-one skills, to learn how to do things on the court other than making off-ball cuts and passing immediately after gaining possession. Further, in the event that either or both players struggled in the D-League, it could allow the Wizards to sigh, cry a little bit in the electric blue glare of after-midnight romantic comedies, make new plans, and move on.
As for this year’s summer league, keep an eye on Jan and Chris. For two players that, depending on who you ask, are being held back more by their mental state than their physical ability or talent, displaying some leadership and NBA know-how among the uninitiated (Porter) and Wizards hopefuls could be a stepping stone to more success in the NBA. A more apt walking metaphor might be a “Watch Your Step” sign before an unexpected drop in elevation, but this is a summer of optimism. Good luck and Godspeed.
TAI’s Kyle Weidie and Adam Rubin will be on-site in Las Vegas with Chris and Jan when the Wizards 2013 Summer League schedule kicks off next Saturday, July 13, against the Golden State Warriors.