Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE
The Airwolf struggled through an up and down rookie campaign, and fans seem less than enamored of him. Has he really been that bad, though?
It's easy to criticize Jan Vesely. Picked sixth in the draft, he's yet to flash any kind shot-creating ability, can't handle the ball, and he's been a huge liability on the defensive glass. Numerous analysts and commentators have expressed disappointment in him, and fans seem to be at best lukewarm on him.
There's absolutely no denying that Vesely has struggled in the NBA. However, there's actually a surprising amount to like about him. Here are a few reasons to be optimistic about his future, especially in the long-term.
He was drafted as a project. The original Bullets Forever player profile on Vesely during the lead up to the 2011 draft basically described him as a work in progress, a poor ball handler who can't shoot but who could be a game-changer as a trapping, high energy defender. A year and a half later, he's been pretty much as advertised, for better and for worse. In other words, the team knew what they were getting when they selected him, and more likely than not chose him based on how good they think he'll be in his late 20s, not during his first few years in the league.
Young players who turn the ball over a lot tend to improve considerably. Even if they don't improve much as ball handlers or passers, young players tend to cut their turnovers as they gain experience playing at the NBA level. What really torpedoed Vesely's offensive game last year, even more than his poor outside shooting, was his 17.0 turnover ratio. For a player who rarely dribbles, that's completely unacceptable. Fortunately, if he can even get it down to a league average level, he'll be able to become an at-worst neutral offensive player, with his high percentage finishing at least partially off-setting his poor jump shot.
He was never supposed to be more than a (really good) glue guy. In other words, don't read too much into his individual numbers. Despite Vesely's relatively poor individual statistics, he's had a surprisingly positive effect on the team's overall performance while he's been on the court. The Wizards were 0.8 points per 100 possessions better with Vesely on the floor last year (although it should be noted that they were still outscored by 4.3 points per 100 possessions), largely based on the strength of his help defense, as the team was 3.0 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor.
Quite a few statistically similar players went on to have good careers. If you look at Vesely's similarity scores, it's striking how good his closest comparables went on to become. The three players who were most similar to Vesely at 21 years old were Lorenzen Wright, Nene, and Andrew Bogut. Nene and Bogut have both been borderline all-stars, while Wright was one of the best defensive power forwards in the league for a decade or so. None of these players were go to scorers, but if Vesely can be roughly their equivalent as a defender and passer, Washington should be very happy with him.
Vesely has already shown a little bit of improvement. He came on strong in the second half of the 2012 season, showing a dramatically improved shot and a lot more assertiveness. Tuesday's season opener against Cleveland saw him look more comfortable as a pick and roll dive man and finisher. While he still struggled to clean up the defensive glass, his three offensive rebounds in only about 20 minutes of playing time at least somewhat made up for his lapses, plus he was playing against a team with numerous elite offensive rebounders.
Going forward, it's going to be interesting to see how Vesely develops and how the team uses him. If Washington tries to turn him into a small forward he's going to struggle and will likely never become more than a bit player, basically a more athletic Jared Jeffries. While it's possible he gets better as a shooter and ball handler, he'd have to make an unprecedented improvement in order to become skilled enough to play the position regularly (quick, name some NBA small forwards who can't shoot or dribble). To become a decent power forward or center, though, all he needs to do is smooth out the rough edges in his game, get stronger so that he can rebound in traffic, and continue to develop his shot. It's no guarantee, but if I was a betting man, I'd say that the odds are in his favor.