- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2015

When it was over, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman swigged from a plastic bottle of water for the final time in a press conference. Paul Pierce’s shot was late and the damage from John Wall’s fall against the Atlanta Hawks could not be undone. Pierce was exhausted. Beal was irritated. Wall explained his dissatisfaction with replicating the prior season’s ending.

Wittman put his water down and said the organization is aware of what improvements are necessary. Moving to small-ball lineups in the playoffs against teams that had been playing small ball all season provided a surprising sweep and a should-have conclusion to the series against the conference’s top seed. The Wizards look set to join the rest of the wing- and space-oriented league. Steps toward that can be taken in Thursday night’s draft.

“Obviously, playing small is successful for us,” Wittman said then. “Playing faster. Those are the things I want to try to improve this team, moving forward. We’ve got to be able to have the pieces to do that in the regular season.

“We know what we have to do, the pieces that I’d like to add moving forward. Brad and John are going to be here a long time, so we got to utilize what their strengths and capabilities are, and find the right people to put around them, which allows us to play the way that I think we were kind of playing in the [playoffs].”

Washington has the 19th and 49th overall picks in this year’s draft. No matter who it selects, this draft will be more productive than that of last season, when the Wizards did not have a first-round pick and sold their second-round pick. It was the third time since Ernie Grunfeld became president of basketball operations in 2003 that they did not participate in the first round after that pick was sent to the Phoenix Suns in a trade for Marcin Gortat in 2013.

Amid the draft mistakes during Grunfeld’s tenure are two hits that may be enough to undo the errors: Wall and Beal. They are the young faces of an aged roster. At 24 and 21, respectively, those two made it simple to portray the Wizards as a youthful team. Instead, they were the league’s oldest team during points of last season. As rosters fluctuated, so did the Wizards’ position among the league’s geriatric entries. No matter if they were first, third or fifth, they need to become younger and faster overall.

SEE ALSO: Five possibilities for the Wizards in Thursday’s NBA draft

Wall and Beal are the ones who made Pierce take notice. They have also influenced the perception of the Wizards for this year’s draft class.

“Extreme respect,” Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter said at his pre-draft workout in Washington on Tuesday. “This is a bunch of young guys who [have] come in and clearly bought in. I think what was impressive last year is how they had all those young guys and then they let Paul Pierce come in, old man come in, and hit shots.”

Pierce will reportedly not exercise his player option to return to the Wizards. That does not mean he will not come back. He can re-sign for more than his $5.5 million player option would have provided. He could also join the Los Angeles Clippers in order to play what is almost certain to be his final season in the league. Joining the Clippers means less money, but would provide the road-weary Pierce a chance to play in his native L.A. with his favorite coach, Doc Rivers.

The organization has not commented on Pierce since the team split after the postseason. Despite multiple requests, Grunfeld has not spoken to the media during the offseason. But, regardless if Pierce returns, the Wizards need help on the wing. Otto Porter is still a maturing talent. Martell Webster played just 32 games last season and was ineffective. Rasual Butler is an unrestricted free agent. The small forward spot is the most thin on the team.

Washington also has power forward needs, particularly if they want to use a “stretch four” in a smaller lineup. Nene and Kris Humphries, neither of which qualify for that role, remain under contract. Drew Gooden is an unrestricted free agent. Pierce also dabbled in that spot during the playoffs. That’s why players like Bobby Portis of Arkansas or Kevon Looney of UCLA have been attached to the Wizards in the first round.

A long-term backup point guard behind Wall is also a pursuit. Ramon Sessions will be back in that role next season. Defense-first Garrett Temple has exercised his player option to return. The second-round pick the Wizards sold last season was used by the Los Angeles Lakers to select point guard Jordan Clarkson, who was named to the all-rookie first team.

SEE ALSO: The good, the bad and worse: Ernie Grunfeld’s Wizards draft history

The Wizards, convinced they should have reached the Eastern Conference Finals, if not the NBA Finals, wade into Thursday’s draft with multiple needs and multiple options. Under Grunfeld, the Wizards have a pockmarked history of picking outside of the lottery. Names like Chris Singleton, picked 18th in 2011 and now out of the league, and Oleksiy Pecherov, selected 18th in 2006 and quickly out of the league, join Nick Young and JaVale McGee as non-lottery draft blunders for the Wizards.

Thursday night provides the fresh chance to get it right.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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