- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 20, 2011

PHILADELPHIA — With a two-game preseason schedule behind them, the Washington Wizards must now get ready to face the New Jersey Nets on Dec. 26 in their season opener.

The truncated post-lockout schedule could help a young team such as the Wizards, since young players have fresher legs and quicker recovery times.

Conversely, the shortened season could help veteran teams such as the Boston Celtics, with players who know how to rest and take care of their bodies, and whose experience can help them close out games.

As many coaches and pundits have said, it’s a matter of perspective. Wizards coach Flip Saunders said that you can make a case for whatever kind of team you have.

But for Washington, one of the younger teams in the league, youth has assets as well as its drawbacks, one of which is a lack of focus that sometimes seems to plague the Wizards.

“I want to see better mental alertness,” Saunders said. “I want to see better quickness from the players. I want to see a little bit of that passion. You can’t play this game without a great amount of passion. I want to see the ability to fight back though adversity.”

Saunders also stressed the importance of balancing young players and veterans.

“We’ll use a lot of different lineups to start with,” Saunders said of his plans for his opening-night starting five. “The one thing we’re going to have to do, based on the 66-game schedule, is we’re going to have to be deep and use a lot of people. [We’ll use] a lot of different type lineups and use these two [preseason] games with Philly to try to blend some people together and see what people work well together.

“The one thing you always have to watch when you put a lot of young players together, they all have a tendency to want to do something on their own to try and establish who they are.”

Saunders also made it clear to his players that in order to get playing time once the season begins, they will need to bring that mental focus and commitment to the defensive end of the floor.

“Maybe [we will] not have as many players that are offensive-minded on the floor,” Saunders said. “Bottom line, no matter how good you are offensively, if you don’t guard, your minutes are going to get cut down. You have to guard.”

Roger Mason Jr., a shooting guard entering his eighth NBA season, re-signed with his hometown Wizards in order to help provide a veteran presence.

“As a young team, your preparation is very important,” Mason said. “Flip is basically saying that he wants better focus out of the guys. There’s nothing wrong with joking around, but when it’s time for the game, if we’re serious about wining, then we have to have supreme focus.”