The mutual admiration was obvious as Washington Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld and former Florida guard Bradley Beal stood together on the practice court shortly after Beal’s pre-draft workout last month. The two seemed completely in sync.
Moments later, the shooting guard held court with the press and owned the room with his confidence. On the day of the NBA draft, June 28, Beal got the present he wanted to celebrate his 19th birthday when the Wizards took him with the third overall pick.
“This is by far the best birthday that I’ve ever had,” Beal said during his post-draft news conference. “This really beats all the presents my mom and dad ever got me.”
The addition of Beal is a huge step forward in Washington’s seemingly endless rebuilding process. Beal is exactly the kind of offensive weapon the Wizards need, and it doesn’t hurt that he already has a good relationship with John Wall and said he’s looking forward to running the floor with him.
A backcourt tandem of Wall and Beal is like food to a weary fan base starving for a winning season and longing for an end to the four-year run at the NBA draft lottery table. The Wizards also made another move critical by trading gimpy-kneed veteran Rashard Lewis and his massive contract to the New Orleans Hornets for center Emeka Okafor, 29, and forward Trevor Ariza, 26.
Like Nene, who was acquired from Denver at last season’s trade deadline, Okafor and Ariza will bring a veteran presence and a defensive mindset to the Wizards‘ front court. Okafor is scheduled to make $28.2 million over the next two seasons, while Ariza will make $7.2 million next year with a player option for $7.7 million for 2013-14.
“We felt like we needed to add some veterans to the roster, and we were able to do that with this move,” Grunfeld told the Associated Press at the time of the trade. “We get players that are good solid players and fill two needs for us. Instead of going into free agency to try to fill our needs, we did it through a trade.”
What Grunfeld also must do is put together a team that will rid the franchise of the knucklehead image that has plagued it for years, beginning with Gilbert Arenas’ legal troubles and morphing into the Nick Young and JaVale McGee YouTube cinnamon challenge.
Of lesser impact, but certainly not helpful from an image standpoint, was Chris Singleton’s claim in April that he spent $10,000 on Mega Millions lottery tickets, because it was “either that or blowing it in the clubs.”
Another move the Wizards are expected to make is to use the amnesty provision on forward Andray Blatche, who is coming off an injury-plagued and unproductive season and whose unpopularity with fans makes it clear that a fresh start is in the best interests of both parties.
Washington also must hope that the shifting balance between young players and veterans will lead to significant improvements for this year’s sophomores - Jan Vesely, Singleton and Shelvin Mack, each of whom had a rookie season that can best be described as adequate.
Vesely, from the Czech Republic, was adjusting to a huge culture change and trying to improve his dreadful jump shot. Singleton was rushed into the starting lineup because of injuries to Blatche and Lewis.
As for Mack, his teacher was a second-year player several months younger than he is, Wall, who readily acknowledges he’d love to have a veteran point guard on the team to help teach him the ropes. Wall often praises Kirk Hinrich for the things he taught him before Hinrich was shipped off to Atlanta for Jordan Crawford, Maurice Evans and Mike Bibby.
Wall, the Wizards‘ franchise player, hates to lose with a passion. There were nights when the Wizards, 20-46 last season, were so overmatched and outclassed that Wall didn’t know which one of a dozen emotions he felt more strongly.
During his obligatory postgame news conferences, Wall was by turns sad, angry, discouraged, frustrated and shellshocked.
Sometimes, he seemed to be all of those at once.
He held it together as the pressure on him mounted, and he struggled with his growing pains and the increased criticism about his lack of development.
The only thing worse for this franchise than losing the fans would be losing Wall, who is signed through the 2014-15 season and would become an unrestricted free agent before the 2015-16 campaign.
Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis have spoken the same words with the same voice so often these past couple of seasons, it’s become difficult to determine which one is articulating “the plan” on any given day - we will build through the draft, develop our young players and get better over time.
You can almost image one of them swinging a shiny gold watch back and forth in front of our eyes as they repeat this mantra.
This offseason, Leonsis has given the green light to Grunfeld and coach Randy Wittman by signing each to a contract extension for the next two seasons. Now, it’s time for the organization to move beyond the loser, laughingstock era.
“I don’t want to be in the lottery anymore,” Leonsis said at a pre-draft news conference. “I would find that unacceptable.”
He’s not the only one.