The Washington Wizards continue to monitor the free agent market, hoping at some point to land an affordable backup big man. But Saturday, coach Flip Saunders and team president Ernie Grunfeld will turn their attention to preparations for the NBA Summer League, which begins Friday in Las Vegas and runs through July 19.
Because the Wizards traded their first- and second-round picks in last month’s draft, this year’s team won’t feature a big-name prospect. Instead, the squad will be led by third-year veterans Nick Young, Dominic McGuire and Javaris Crittenton, as well as center JaVale McGee, who’s entering his second season with the Wizards.
With the Wizards plagued by injuries, all four received more playing time than expected last season. But summer league competition represents another step forward in their development and is a chance to apply the lessons they have learned since Saunders was hired in April.
“We just want to see continued improvement, what they’ve learned, what progress they’ve made and what else they need to work on this summer,” Grunfeld said. “It’s twofold really. They get to show us the progress they’ve made, and we also get a better feel for what we need to get better at as the summer goes on.”
Young and Crittenton will look to make a strong case for themselves as members of a crowded backcourt that features seven guards. Crittenton and newly acquired Randy Foye are expected to battle for the backup point guard spot. Young is expected to contend with DeShawn Stevenson (who is coming off back surgery) and Mike Miller (who was acquired with Foye) to start at shooting guard.
McGuire went from being a raw backup small forward as a rookie to starting the final 56 games of his sophomore season. He averaged 5.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists as a starter and entered the offseason hoping to develop his offensive game further.
McGee’s playing time fluctuated as a rookie, and he averaged 6.5 points and 3.9 rebounds in 15.2 minutes. But with Etan Thomas and Darius Songaila - veterans who served as backup centers - gone, McGee moves up to backup behind Brendan Haywood.
With Haywood and McGee the only centers on their roster, the Wizards want to add a veteran. But confident in Haywood’s abilities and pleased with the progress McGee has made, the team elected not to pursue a big-name pickup in free agency, partly because it is already $5.88 million over the luxury tax limit and also because it anticipates playing the third center only roughly 10 minutes a game.
The Wizards, according to league sources, have expressed interest in signing Rasho Nesterovic, Channing Frye, Jason Collins or Jamaal Magloire for near the veteran minimum, but Grunfeld left open the possibility of adding one of the five center/power forward prospects on the summer league squad.
The biggest name on the list is rookie Josh Heytvelt, a 6-foot-11, 260-pound forward/center out of Gonzaga whom many expected to be drafted. Other centers are second-year veteran John Edwards, a 7-foot, 275-pounder who turns 28 on July 31, and James Lang (6-10, 285), who played 11 games for the Wizards in 2006-07.
“There could an opportunity,” Grunfeld said. “We have only 13 players under contract and can carry 15. If someone impresses us, there’s an opportunity for them to possibly earn a spot on the regular-season roster.”
The summer league squad will be coached by assistant coach Randy Wittman. Saunders will run the practice sessions, which conclude Monday before the team flies to Las Vegas for its opener Tuesday.