Gary Neal, former Towson guard, gets chance at homecoming with Wizards

Ex-Towson guard Gary Neal will practice on campus with his Wizards teammates this week.

After eight years as a basketball vagabond that took him from Turkey to the NBA Finals, Gary Neal will cherish a rare opportunity to revisit his roots this week.

On Tuesday, the former Towson University star will begin training camp with his new team, the Washington Wizards. And he'll do so on the Baltimore County campus where he set scoring records and wrestled his life onto its current course.

"A lot of memories there," Neal said Monday as the Wizards held their annual preseason Media Day. The team will practice at Towson from Tuesday through Thursday this week.

"It's an opportunity a lot of guys in the NBA don't get," he said, "so I'm definitely excited about it. … It's home for me."

As Neal surveyed his options in the offseason, the wily veteran in him spied a potentially perfect fit in Washington. He figured he'd be able to create space for young Wizards guards John Wall and Bradley Beal with his shooting, and they'd be able to set him up for easy shots.

The fact he grew up nearby — starring at Aberdeen High, Calvert Hall and Towson — only added to the appeal.

"It's a perfect situation for me," Neal said. "I wanted to get back to playing with a point guard of John's capability — a pass-first point guard, an All-Star point guard. As I'm getting older, I wanted to be around guys who can make the game easier for me."

To make it work, Neal will have to get back to his essence — the guy who drains shots from all over as soon as he hits the court. He shot a career-worst 30.5 percent from 3-point range last year, a rate he knows will not keep him in the league.

If he can make 42 percent as he did in his best seasons, he'll give an Eastern Conference contender exactly what it needs.

Despite reaching the second round of the playoffs last season, the Wizards became a lot less threatening when their reserves took the floor. Coach Randy Wittman believes Neal can help change that by imitating Beal, the team's sleek, sweet-shooting guard.

"One of the things I wanted to try to do this summer was improve our bench," Wittman said Monday. "We had to play a little bit differently when we went to our bench. We haven't really had a guy behind Bradley like Gary. I think Gary can play a lot like Bradley."

Fellow reserve Garrett Temple, who played with Neal in San Antonio, agreed he'll give the Wizards more punch off the bench.

"Dead-eye shooter," Temple said. "You can't really look at what he did last year. Gary's a proven shooter. He's guy that knocked down the three ball — big-time shots in crucial moments. He's a guy who can really get hot quick and score for you quickly off the bench. That's what he does. That's what he's going to do for us."

Neal, 30, said he's thrilled his first Wizards training camp will kick off at his alma mater.

Towson was a port in the storm for Neal at a time when his basketball dreams seemed in jeopardy. He had been the leading scorer at La Salle in each of his first two seasons, but then he was accused of sexually assaulting a female counselor at a basketball camp in Philadelphia.

He enrolled at Towson without a scholarship as he awaited his legal fate. Neal was ultimately acquitted and became an instant star for Pat Kennedy, finishing fourth in the nation in scoring as a senior.

"It was kind of the rebirth of my basketball career, getting to play at Towson for those two years," Neal said. "Towson's huge for me and I'll be thankful to the Towson community forever. I was able to stay in school and not really miss a beat at all because of Towson."

Though he starred for Kennedy at the old Towson Center, Neal maintains a friendly relationship with current Tigers coach Pat Skerry and has worked out at the sparkling SECU Arena, which opened in 2013.

"It's good to get a building like that and just see the program evolve, too, with coach Skerry," he said.

Neal knows the life of a basketball journeyman. He laced his sneakers for four teams in three countries before he caught on with the San Antonio Spurs at age 26. Despite the pay cut he took to become an NBA reserve, it was a dream scenario. He emerged as a deadly shooter off the bench for one of the best teams in the league.

He said if he can bring any wisdom to the Wizards from his time under Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, it's that every player must understand and accept his part in the machine.

"The Spurs have always done it and continue to do it collectively, as a team," he said. "It's up to me to do my part. I was brought to basically space the floor and make shots. That's what the management, the coaching staff and my teammates are expecting me to do. As a professional, you have to take care of what you're supposed to do to help the team do what they're supposed to do."

Neal played in the NBA Finals for the 2012-2013 Spurs, who fell a game short of a championship after Ray Allen's miraculous 3-pointer kept the Miami Heat alive. Neal made 29 threes in 21 games in those playoffs.

But he did not get to experience the joy of the Spurs' revenge on the Heat the following season. Instead, Neal bounced from Milwaukee to Charlotte to Minnesota.

He's matter of fact about the itinerant reality of an NBA reserve. He'd like to find a more permanent home with the Wizards. He grew up rooting for the Washington Bullets, modeling his game on those of 1990s stars Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland. And he still has many friends and relatives in the area, enough that he figures he'll have to spring for more than the four tickets he's allotted nightly.

But he knows he might have to pack his bags again, even if he plays well this year.

"Every player that plays in the NBA for an extended period plays on numerous teams," he said. "Unless you're a franchise player, and I'm not a franchise player. I'll take playing on 10 more teams if that means I get to stay in the league for another seven years. At the end of the day, stability is [staying in] the NBA."

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