- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Washington Wizards, winners of a scant 23 games last season, will take any advantage they can get in a lockout-shortened season with only a week of training camp before their first pre-season game Dec. 16 against the Philadelphia 76ers.

Most of the roster will remain intact, eliminating the need for a frenzied free-agent signing period. The team will instead focus on continuing to develop the players they have, perhaps with an eye on wading into a much deeper free-agent pool next year.

“You want to have flexibility if you can,” said Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld at a press conference Thursday at Verizon Center. “When you look at the free-agent list, it’s not a great free-agent market and you don’t want to tie up too much money now. We like the balance that we have now.”

That balance includes the three players the Wizards acquired in the draft — forward Jan Vesely, forward Chris Singleton and guard Shelvin Mack. Grunfeld said the Wizards will assist with the process of buying out Vesely’s overseas contract and getting him a work visa so he can join the team.

“We want to see our young players get better. We want to see a fighting spirit on a nightly basis, and then let the chips fall where they may,” Grunfeld said. “I’m not going to put down how many games we want to win, but we want to see improvement, we want to see the players develop, we want to see good teamwork and playing the game the right way.”

Flip Saunders, who addressed the media at a press conference Friday, said he learned a few things as well during the lockout that he believes will help him as he enters his third season as Wizards head coach.

“As a coach, when you have time off, what you learn is the things that you miss,” Saunders said. “You miss the camaraderie of your players, your staff, because you know what? It gives you a purpose. When you’re not sure as far as when a season is going to start, you don’t always have that purpose.”

Keeping tabs on his players through the media, Saunders was impressed with Jordan Crawford’s confidence, and is hoping that a healthy Rashard Lewis can return to the form he had during his All-Star days in Seattle.

“Well, I didn’t know he [Crawford] was as good as MJ. I wasn’t sure of that. I didn’t know that,” Saunders said, referring to Crawford’s public statements comparing himself to Michael Jordan.

“I feel like I can be better than Michael Jordan,” Crawford said in September, during the Impact Basketball Lockout League series in Las Vegas. “When I’m done playing, I don’t want people to say, Michael Jordan is the best player. I want that to be me.”

Despite Crawford’s belief that he’s comparable to Jordan, Saunders said there’s still a thing or two Crawford can learn.

“I did know he had a lot of confidence,” Saunders said. “This training camp is going to be really good for him. He’s got a tough spot, because he’s got to play two positions at a high level. He’s such a great scorer, and he has the ability to play the two.

“But yet he’s going to have to have the ability to play backup one to John [Wall] and change a little bit how he plays when he’s playing that spot. He can’t just go have that same mentality that, ‘I’m going to score every time I touch it,’ like he does sometimes when he’s at the two.”

Saunders also knows he’s expecting a lot out of Lewis, 31, who he coached at the Goodwill Games in 2001. Lewis battled with a nagging knee injury most of last season.

“I think now that he’s healthier, where he’s had an opportunity to get his legs back in shape, also be able to go out on the floor, put it on the floor, shoot perimeter, and also be a more diversified player, not a one-dimensional player, and give us leadership,” Saunders said. “That’s one thing he did do; he gave us more leadership last year than I thought even he could, even when he wasn’t playing.”

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