- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Championships aren’t won in the offseason, but as Washington Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld was quick to point out, every journey begins with a single step.

During a news conference Tuesday at Verizon Center, Grunfeld expressed his belief that the Wizards have made significant progress as Year 3 of the rebuild gets underway.

“Training camp is right around the corner, a week from today, so it’s an exciting time for us,” Grunfeld said. “We’ve added some new players, and our goal for this year is to try to build on the way we ended last season.”

The Wizards (20-46) finished on a six-game winning streak. Still, they were next to last in the Eastern Conference above only the Charlotte Bobcats (7-59), whose .106 winning percentage was the worst in NBA history. Improvements or not, it remains a long climb from the 14th spot to the eighth — the last seed in the playoffs.

“We feel like we have a nice balance of young players,” Grunfeld said. “We have not gone away from our original plan of rebuilding and building through the draft. We’ve also been able to add some solid veterans to provide leadership and to fill some of the needs that we felt like we had this offseason.”

The Wizards have turned over the roster, adding five players who were not on the team last year — forward Trevor Ariza, guard Bradley Beal, center Emeka Okafor, guard A.J. Price and swingman Martell Webster. Equally important is addition by subtraction, as the team rid itself of injury-prone veteran Rashard Lewis and three players who defined the Wizards‘ formerly cartoonish culture — JaVale McGee, Nick Young and Andray Blatche.

Beal will be a key figure in the culture change. The Wizards selected the Florida guard with the third overall pick in the draft, and Grunfeld was impressed by Beal’s maturity as well as his skills.

“He’s a very good outside shooter, but I think we were surprised with some of the playmaking ability he had,” Grunfeld said. “He’s put together very well for a young kid. He has great work ethic, a very good feel for the game, and we’re very pleased with his development.”

Beal is expected to come off the bench behind starting shooting guard Jordan Crawford, while point guard John Wall, now entering his third year, will need to make a quantum leap in leadership, playmaking and shooting percentage if the Wizards are to have a shot at the eighth seed.

“I think John has made real good progress,” Grunfeld said. “He’s a very tough, hard-nosed competitor. He’s the type of player that makes people around him better, and we’re real pleased with the progress he’s made.”

Also key in a leadership role is center Nene, whom the Wizards acquired at last year’s trade deadline. Although Nene’s presence brought maturity and veteran savvy, his injury problems have become an ongoing concern.

Nene missed 14 out of 25 games last season with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, which he aggravated during the Olympics while playing for his native Brazil. Grunfeld was noncommittal about Nene’s status for training camp, which begins Tuesday, but believes he will be ready for the start of the regular season Oct. 30.

“We will be very cautious with him,”Grunfeld said. “He knows his body very well, and we have all the confidence in the world in him coming back and helping us, just like he did last year.”

Tasked with meshing the new pieces in an effort to develop a winning chemistry will be Randy Wittman, who was signed to an extension in the offseason after taking over as coach when Flip Saunders was fired in January.

“I think [Wittman] likes the roster that he has,” Grunfeld said. “The players believe in him, he believes in them and he instilled a lot of confidence and pride in our players last year. We finished the season winning eight out of our last 10 games, and we want to build on that this year.”

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