- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2011

Flip Saunders came to the Wizards two seasons ago expecting to coach a playoff team, but instead found himself in the middle of a tear-down and rebuild with a rookie as the centerpiece.

But it wasn’t hard for him to make the adjustment - he’s been here before. As coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Saunders worked with a 19-year-old Kevin Garnett fresh out of high school.

In meetings with Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld and owner Ted Leonsis, Saunders said he “feels good” about the progress the team is making at the end of the season and feels confident about the direction for next year.

Ted has very much had a game plan, having gone through this situation with the Capitals,” Saunders said. “He did understand as far as the growing pains that were going to be there. He’s never wavered as far as what our goals were this year; playing our young guys and maybe taking some hits, but getting those guys playing time and being able to evaluate our players and seeing where do they really fit in.

“Are they starters, or are they guys coming off the bench? Are they guys who aren’t going to be part of who we are? Are they guys that fit as far as the character that we’re looking for to move forward?”

Saunders posed the questions, but the Wizards so far have only one clear-cut answer - point guard John Wall. Just about everything else is still up for debate.

But as Leonsis has made clear, he’s using this time to evaluate players not just on talent but character and work ethic, and on how they might - or might not - fit into the Wizards’ new culture and a team built around Wall.

“You look at other great players; they couldn’t win by themselves. They all come to realize that,” Leonsis said. “They have to rely on their teammates and they have to believe in what the organization is doing, and John [Wall] does believe that. Until the team is built around you, and you get to know what your gifts are and strengths are and what your teammates’ [strengths] are, it’s hard.”

But the effort and energy the Wizards are playing with in these final games - including another win Monday night against the Celtics in their home finale - is giving Leonsis, Grunfeld and Saunders a solid place to start.

“Seeing how these guys have progressed over the last month, that’s been very rewarding,” Saunders said. “As I’ve told these guys many times, I never want them to look back and say, ‘Coach, I wish you would have been harder on me.’

“They’ve understood that every time we step on the floor, we have to learn and get better. We’ve told them that they’re going to be judged for next year on this year.”

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