Washington big man to face Team USA at Verizon
For the first time in three years, Wizards fans have someone else to pay attention to during the offseason other than John Wall. No, it's not yet Bradley Beal, though his time will come.
Instead, they can follow the lead of Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and focus on watching and learning from Brazilian center Nene, the complement to Wall as a franchise cornerstone. Nene will be front and, literally, center in Washington as the anchor of the Brazilian national team that will take on Team USA at Verizon Center on Monday as part of both squads' preparation for the Summer Olympics.
But it is his vision for the Wizards that captivated Leonsis during the team's exit interviews last spring and led Leonsis to say on draft night that another year in the lottery would be "unacceptable." It's also a stark contrast from the veteran center's arrival in March, when he was blind-sided by the trade from the Denver Nuggets to Washington. Four months later, the 29-year-old Brazilian has become a crucial piece of the identity and culture change that Leonsis believes must take hold for the Wizards to transform into a contender.
|U.S. vs. Brazil|
|When » Monday, 8 p.m.|
|Where » Verizon Center|
|TV » ESPN2|
|» No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Anthony Davis was called into the U.S. team as a replacement for Blake Griffin, who will miss the Olympics after suffering a medial meniscus tear in his left knee during training camp last week. Griffin was thought to have picked up the injury when Wizards point guard John Wall, who was playing for the USA Select team, stepped on his foot.|
|» Kevin Durant was the star of the U.S. team's 113-59 Olympic tune-up victory over the Dominican Republic, scoring 24 points on 9-for-11 shooting, including hitting his first five 3-point attempts. The international 3-point line sits 19 inches closer than the 23-foot, 9-inch NBA line.|
"A lot of this came from Nene," Leonsis said. "Nene was an outsider. He was traded here. He came from a winning program. He didn't know what to expect, and in our exit interview, he was very forceful and articulate about our potential, what we needed to do to take the next step. To him the next step was you go into every game thinking you can win the game, and your expectation is that you can fight for and make the playoffs."
Nene couldn't have been blamed for being reluctant to go to Washington in the first place. A prized free agent during the lockout, in December he inked a five-year, $65 million deal with Denver, where he'd been for his first nine NBA seasons. The contract seemingly ensured that he'd remain with a young, dynamic team determined to make noise in the Western Conference.
But his fresh start in Washington also meant a fresh start for the Wizards, who were unburdened of Nick Young and JaVale McGee in the deal.
"I know when I got traded, it was going to be crazy, and it was crazy," Nene said after the season. "But I know God prepared the right moment, and I didn't have time to think much about the trade."
The Wizards improved immediately, going 11-14 following the trade and 7-4 with Nene in the lineup. Nene missed 10 games with plantar fasciitis -- a condition which has also affected his Olympic preparation -- but it allowed him to process what had happened to him and to realize the influence he was having. Players were cutting harder, spacing was better, trust was growing.
"I'm so happy to be here, and be helpful and play my game and affect the other players and give my best, and be recognized for everything I've done," Nene said. "Who doesn't like to receive a little tap on the shoulder when you've done well?"
Nene shot 61 percent from the field, averaging 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists with the Wizards.
"I just play free here," he said. "What they say, 'I didn't know you were so good.' I been working the last four summers. I couldn't shoot in Denver. Here I have the green light to shoot it."
The Wizards were also moving forward and aren't spending the summer clawing for attention in a free agent market where Washington still isn't an attractive destination. With Nene locked in for another four seasons, there's no threat of overpaying a frustrating project center like McGee, who has reportedly been offered his own five-year, $50 million deal.
Nene's health remains a concern, but both Kevin Seraphin and recently acquired Emeka Okafor could lighten his load next season. The Wizards may not have an all-star in the frontcourt, but for the first time since he took over as owner, Leonsis is close -- depending on how the team's situation with Andray Blatche is resolved -- to having a team that can be judged on wins and losses, not on its behavior.
"You can't say you want to improve the team and compete for a championship if you're not in the conversation for the playoffs," Leonsis said. "So in changing the culture and the expectations, it's developing players, bringing in players who have a maturity about them."
Nene's arrival might be remembered as the moment it started to happen.