No, he did not pick up a basketball. Yes, he’s serious. New moves were not added. A daily refinement of his jump shot did not occur. He did not work on an offhand dribble or expanding his range.
Nene took the summer off. At home, he rested his oft-aching body and busy mind. Not playing basketball during his time away from the NBA is a standard approach for the 6-foot-11, 260-pound Brazilian power forward. He relaxed, put in work as the largest and most menacing soccer player imaginable, and played with his kids. They are growing fast, and, he claims, cute, the latter of which he jokes is no surprise.
“No basketball,” Nene said. “Nothing, no, doesn’t matter. All these things [are] in the mind. Your mind [needs to] be light. Be clean with all those things. I did something else I love, which is soccer. I didn’t touch a basketball. I spent time with my family.”
The next two years for the Washington Wizards’ power forward will be non-stop and filled with change. In Washington, Nene appears aligned as the new anchor of the team’s bench unit. He’s started 80.5 percent of the games in which he has appeared. If he played off the bench previously, it was most often because he was working his way back from injury. Nene plays a rough-and-tumble style in a heavy-set frame. The combination has caused him multiple injuries during his career, producing pains from his shoulders to his feet.
When this season, his 14th, concludes, Nene will have to deal with the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He has not committed to playing — “That’s another step for when the season is over,” he said — but, it’s difficult to imagine him not being on the team when his home country hosts the games.
When the Olympics conclude, Nene anticipates returning to the NBA. His five-year, $65 million contract ends after this season. He will be a free agent bruiser in a league that is pursuing long-range shooting big men. He will also be 34 years old by the time next season begins.
Before the preseason began, Wizards coach Randy Wittman provided two caveats: He may use multiple starting lineups this season, and he explained that onlookers should not to read into the rotation he uses in preseason games.
Despite those warnings, the way the Wizards have approached the preseason makes it appear Nene will be working from the bench most nights. He has come off the bench twice in three games. Nene started the third game against Paschoalotto Bauru, a professional team from Brazil.
Rare instances, like when the Wizards are opposed by the Chicago Bulls, will call for two big men on the floor at the start. Otherwise, Nene is likely to work as the backup center in the Wizards’ new small-ball approach.
“I’m not going to say who is going to start,” Nene said before the preseason games. “Are you going to give your best to the team? That’s what matters.”
He has begrudgingly played center in the past. Most games, he played power forward. He sees personal advantages in each spot.
“I know how to use my strength against weak guy and how to use my speed against heavy guy. I’ve [even] defended a point guard, so I’ll be fine,” Nene said.
Wittman said he has not seen Nene in better condition before the season has begun. Last year, Nene played in 67 regular-season games and started 58, both personal highs since joining the Wizards via trade in March 2012.
Training camp is not a thrill for someone who has been in the league 13 years. In his typical Zen way, Nene explained what he can accomplish in the month-long run-up to the Oct. 28 opener at the Orlando Magic.
“Just doing what I need to do,” Nene said. “Prepare myself. Try to explore my talent.”
Moving him to the second unit is an extension and moderate modification of last season’s approach in the playoffs. Then, Nene started with Marcin Gortat, but the substitution pattern following tipoff most often alternated the two big men.
When Nene works with the second unit this season, he’ll be part of improved depth. Backup point guard Ramon Sessions and shooting guard Gary Neal should often be on the court with him. Options at small forward and power forward vary. If Kris Humphries remains the starting power forward, then Drew Gooden and Jared Dudley become options at the backup “stretch-four” spot. Rookie Kelly Oubre Jr. and Martell Webster, if healthy, could fill the backup small forward spot.
Whatever the grouping, it will find itself next to a version of Nene which is attempting a touch of reform. His temper is a frequent visitor on the floor. Those in his circle are encouraging an effort to relent.
“When you play 13 years, I think you’ve got to just enjoy,” Nene said. “I think that’s one thing, my age, my personal manager, my family, people who are close to me, they say you just need to have fun.
“I’m very competitive, you know? So they say, ‘You’ve got to enjoy. You’ve got to enjoy, buddy.’ I’m a little hard on myself. You’ve got enjoy. That’s what I’m going to try to do.”