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Elfin: With Wall Sidelined, Wizards Still Heading in Right Direction

by David Elfin
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credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

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The Washington Wizards just opened training camp yesterday, but they start their preseason schedule Sunday in Charlotte against their favorite patsy of 2011-12, the Bobcats. It’s not easy to have a patsy when you finish 15 games out in a lockout-shortened, 66-game season, but Washington was 4-0 against Charlotte, 16-46 against everyone else.

John Wall started all four of those victories for the Wizards, averaging 10.8 points and 10 assists, but, of course, the point guard won’t be in uniform on Sunday as he finishes the first week of what’s supposed to be two months on the sidelines with a stress injury to his left knee.

If Wall returns by Thanksgiving, he’ll have missed 13 games, about a sixth of the 2012-13 schedule. Washington might well survive its two matchups with Charlotte during that month, but there are also two games apiece with Indiana and Boston and solo contests with San Antonio, Portland, Dallas, Utah, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland.

While Wall recovers, Wizards coach Randy Wittman’s point guard options are: the just-signed Jannero Pargo, who has started all of 18 games as a nine-year NBA journeyman while hitting just 39 percent of his shots; A.J. Price, who started just three games during three years as a reserve with the Pacers while shooting just .375 from the field, or Shelvin Mack, who shot 40 percent as Wall’s rookie backup last year.

That’s the bad news for Washington. The good news is that all the other key players who produced eight victories in the final 10 games of 2011-12 are back. They’re led by center Nene, a March acquisition from Denver who’s currently sidelined with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, along with young big men Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, Trevor Booker and Chris Singleton, and shooters Jordan Crawford and Cartier Martin.

Emeka Okafor was added from New Orleans to back up Nene while forward Trevor Ariza, who also came aboard in the June 20 deal that sent aging forward Rashard Lewis and a second-round draft pick to the Hornets, could well be a starter for the Wizards.

Eight days later, Washington chose Florida shooting guard Bradley Beal with the third overall pick in the draft. Swingman Martell Webster, who soared straight from high school to the sixth overall selection in 2005 and was a regular during four of his seven seasons with Portland and Minnesota, signed as a free agent on Aug. 29.

Although the roster (not counting camp bodies Earl Barron, Brian Cook, Steven Gray and Shavlik Randolph) boasts 51 seasons of NBA experience, Nene and Okafor, both 30, are the only players over 27. If Ariza and Vesely wind up as the forwards and Beal supplants Crawford at shooting guard soon, Washington’s lineup would average just 24 years of age when Wall returns.

Best of all, the departures of Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young during the past seven months finally cleaned house of the last of the selfish knuckleheads who typified a franchise whose .282 winning percentage the past four seasons was the worst in franchise history.

Only Martin, who caught on with Washington in late March 2010 and has been cut and re-signed twice since, predates the 2010 rookie class of Wall, Crawford, Booker and Seraphin. And nearly half of Wittman’s players — Beal, Nene, Ariza, Okafor, Pargo, Price and Webster – were never a part of the bad old days of guns in the locker room, jokes about porno movies, and passes off the backboard to oneself.

However, this season still figures to be one of transition for the Wizards. Wittman has a career .331 winning percentage in four-plus seasons coaching Cleveland, Minnesota and Washington. None of his players has ever suited up in a playoff game for the Wizards. The former stat doesn’t figure to change much this year and it would be a shock if the other changes come April.

And yet, despite Wall’s absence for the season’s first month, it seems like the Wizards are headed in the right direction again for the first time since they were developing into a playoff team under coach Eddie Jordan eight autumns ago. And that’s what really matters in 2012-13.

David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin

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