by David Elfin

There’s a different vibe at Wizards training camp this fall.

Last October, with point guard John Wall sidelined by a knee injury and center Nene still dealing with his foot problems, the only excitement was about rookie shooting guard Bradley Beal.

Sure, Washington had finished 2011-12 with six straight victories but they came at the end of a tumultuous, lockout-shortened 20-46 season that included the dismissal of coach Flip Saunders and his replacement by assistant Randy Wittman. The Wizards hadn’t won more than 26 games since 2008 and there wasn’t much hope of making the playoffs.

While Washington missed out on postseason again last spring, the respectable 24-25 record over the final 49 games – after the Wall-less 5-28 start – a newfound sense of maturity and stability, and an expected falloff by longtime Eastern Conference stalwarts Boston and Atlanta have the Wizards thinking playoffs for the first time since the Obamas moved in about 10 blocks northwest of Verizon Center.

“I’m very confident that we have what it takes to get the job done, but I’m not going to stamp our name on it because there are a lot of things we have to prove,” said Martell Webster, a pleasant surprise at small forward after signing as a free agent last August. “We’ve been doing a great job in camp. I think we’re ahead of ourselves. We’re heading in the right direction.”

The Wizards believe they’ve upgraded with Eric Maynor replacing Anthony Price as Wall’s backup. They drafted Georgetown’s smooth Otto Porter and signed Josh Childress to compete with Webster and veteran Trevor Ariza at small forward and also picked sharpshooting Michigan swingman Glen Rice to back up Beal. The only absentees from the team that played the final 50 games last year at a .500 pace are Price and backup shooting guard Cartier Martin, who weren’t re-signed, and forwards Emeka Okafor and Chris Singleton, who are injured.

“We’ve got pretty much the same team so we don’t have to learn everything again,” said power forward Kevin Seraphin. “We know what coach wants us to do works and we know each other so it’s easier to play.”

Nene, Beal and Wall, who was given a five-year, $80 million contract extension in July and spent the summer training with three-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, are all healthy after playing in just 15 games together last season and starting just eight alongside each other.

“Everybody knows this is John’s team,” Webster said of Wall, the top overall pick in the 2010 draft at age 19. “Now it’s official. I don’t think there’s any more pressure on him now. He just has to go out there and play the way he has been playing. He and Brad [who’s 20] can be scary together and they’re probably the youngest backcourt in the league.”

With defensive stopper Okafor sidelined indefinitely with a herniated disc and Singleton out until November after foot surgery, Washington signed Al Harrington, a 15-year veteran big man, to compete with Trevor Booker, 25, and Seraphin and Jan Vesely, both 23. So Wittman certainly has options to try to fill the void left by Okafor’s absence.

“We were a great team defensively,” Webster said of last year’s Wizards, who ranked fifth in opposing field goal percentage and ninth in scoring defense despite finishing just 28th in defensive rebounding. “We knew that if we weren’t making shots, we weren’t letting the other team make shots either. But we have to be better at defensive rebounding. That’s our main focal point in this camp.”

The 17 healthy Wizards, who began practicing at George Mason last Saturday, open preseason on Tuesday against Brooklyn before heading to Rio De Janeiro to meet Chicago a week from tomorrow. They open the regular season at Detroit on Oct. 30 and begin the home season two nights later against Philadelphia.

Realistically, Washington isn’t going to catch defending NBA champion Miami, New York, Indiana, Chicago or Brooklyn, but there are three more Eastern Conference playoff spots to be had. The Celtics and Hawks, who claimed two of them last season, are rebuilding as is Philadelphia. Charlotte and Orlando seem hopeless. That leaves Washington (29-53 last year) competing with Milwaukee and Toronto (both 34-48), Detroit (29-53) and Cleveland (24-58) for sixth through eighth in the East.

If the Wizards repeat the 24-19 pace they were on before losing their final six games, they’d win 46, which was good enough for fifth in the East. If they repeat the 24-25 pace they began after Wall returned last January, they’d win 39 games which was good enough for eighth.

“With John back we had a great team and this year we fight for the playoffs,” Vesely said.

“We have the ability get pretty high,” Webster added. “I’m not going to say we’re going to be there, but we have the ability and the opportunity.”

After five years in the NBA’s wasteland, that’s definite progress.


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 three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.


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