The Washington Wizards have been scouting Jan Vesely for years, so it's no surprise that they ended up with him in the 2011 NBA Draft. Will all that work pay off for Ernie Grunfeld and company? His role in the rebuilding effort depends on it.
Give Ernie Grunfeld and the Washington Wizards credit: their selection of Jan Vesely with the No. 6 overall pick of the 2011 NBA Draft wasn't a gut feeing. They weren't wowed by an individual workout, nor were they overjoyed because of a couple YouTube highlight clips. They picked Vesely after scouting him for years, essentially since the 21-year old first left his native Czech Republic and became a member of Serbian powerhouse Partizan Belgrade.
Of course, that's exactly the reason this is a pivotal moment for Grunfeld and his team of scouts and executives. During Vesely's introductory press conference, one fact became very clear: Vesely was their guy. Heck, Grunfeld noted that Vesely very well may have been his pick last year had he gone pro and the Wizards didn't win the lottery.
This is the moment where the Wizards' rebuilding project will reach another fork in the road. The pick of John Wall was easy. The later picks of Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin mattered but are easily redeemable if they did not work out. The midseason trade with the Atlanta Hawks to ultimately land Jordan Crawford and the pick that became Chris Singleton was a tremendous move, but even that is still a cherry on the top of a full resume.
The pick of Vesely, though, is the first lottery pick in the Wall era, and it requires us to implicitly trust the exhaustive analysis Grunfeld and his team of scouts have done. It's cliché and it's necessary, but Grunfeld and the rest of the organization have put a lot of pressure on themselves with this selection.
"This is a pick that Flip [Saunders] and the front office and Ernie were unanimous on," owner Ted Leonsis said.
That Vesely is an idiosyncratic European forward only adds to that pressure. It's not that Vesely is unproven; far from it. He's the polar opposite of the stereotypical European player. He's played against elite competition. His athleticism has people dubbing him the "European Blake Griffin." He succeeds offensively not with his jump shot, a major work in progress, but rather by mixing it up inside, posting up smaller defenders and making timely cuts. He's the glue of his team, doing things to help that can't be measured by traditional statistics.
The Wizards hope Vesely can fill the lane on their fast break and force mismatches on both ends of the floor, but even a coach as creative as Flip Saunders had trouble defining his niche more specifically. That's not a slight on Vesely as much as it is a sign that he potentially adds something to the Wizards that we don't truly understand yet.
When [Vice President of Player Personnel] Milt Newton went and saw Jan two years ago, he came back and he told me, ‘You're gonna love him,' Saunders said. "He reminds me a lot of [Kevin] Garnett, from a standpoint of his energy and his motor. When a guy plays like that, as a coach, it becomes very difficult for you not to find somehow to play him."
Vesely's problem is much more fundamental: he cannot shoot. He shot just 33.3 percent from three-point range and a ghastly 43.8 percent from the free-throw line in Euroleague play last season. The Wizards feel his form is workable and it's more a matter of a few minor tweaks here and there. Besides, they're not drafting him to shoot: they're drafting him to run and wreck havoc defensively.
"We can run the floor and we can work," Vesely said. "This is a young team and we have enough time to work hard and practice well. I came here to help the team."
The Wizards had other options besides picking Vesely. They could have traded up for Enes Kanter or Derrick Williams, despite the reported heavy cost. They could have helped their defense and drafted big man Bismack Biyombo. Instead, Grunfeld picked Vesely and trusted the work he and his scouts had done.
But for all of Grunfeld's research, one intangible may have pushed him over the edge. When Grunfeld was nine years old, his family moved from Romania to the United States. Stuck in a new land where he did not speak the native language, Grunfeld acclimated himself to American culture by playing basketball on the playgrounds of New York City. Those experiences forged a successful playing and post-playing career in the game
Forty-three years later, Jan Vesely moved away home for the first time and was forced to learn a new culture. Helped in part by basketball, Vesely picked up Serbian in one month and adjusted well to his new home. Soon afterwards, he easily picked up English. Grunfeld couldn't help but admit that impressed him.
"When I came here, I didn't speak a word of English," Grunfeld recalled. "The way [Jan] communicates and the way he understands, even the way he understands jokes, is not that easy for someone where it's not your primary language."
Now, Grunfeld's professional reputation will in part be decided by the young Czech prospect that may have reminded him of himself. If it works out, Grunfeld will be correctly celebrated. If not, it won't be for lack of professionalism on Grunfeld's part. Instead, it will mean far worse. It will mean Grunfeld's talent evaluation skills may not be as good as they need to be.