The new-look Washington Wizards have slowly been taking shape over the past two days at Verizon Center. No. 1 overall pick John Wall, fellow rookies Trevor Booker and Hamady N'Diaye, third-year center JaVale McGee and other players hoping to find an NBA home are preparing for the NBA summer league in Las Vegas, with the first game on Sunday.
Fourth-year veteran carryovers Nick Young and Al Thornton worked on developing some chemistry with their new teammates, while leaving open the possibility of a cameo appearance in summer league. Injured forward Andray Blatche, unsigned rookie Kevin Seraphin and new additions Yi Jianlian and Kirk Hinrich watched and observed.
After fielding a veteran-laden team with playoff aspirations the past few seasons, the Wizards are starting over from the ground up, meaning that July practices and scrimmages are no longer viewed as an opportunity to groom potential backups and fringe rotation players. Following a roster overhaul that began last February, the collection of young players on display in Las Vegas — Wall and McGee in particular - will be the likely focal point for the team.
"I think we still have to go through the development of players, individual skills. That's what your summer time is for," Coach Flip Saunders said. "For this, as much as anything, is to give those guys time and see if they are going to be somewhat rotation [guys]."
Wall sat out the Friday morning session after falling and straining his groin in the practice the night before, but he is expected to be in action when the Wizards face the Golden State Warriors at Cox Pavilion on the campus of the University of Las Vegas on Sunday. Wall said that he plans to play all five games because, "I want to play every minute of every game."
"It's not important for me to play every minute, it's just go out there and play my style of basketball and run the team and try to win games," Wall said. "We got other good point guards on the team. We got Jerome Randall, and the [Lester] Hudson kid. It's a lot of guys that can take my spot away."
Wall doesn't have to worry about that, with his "Game Changer" banner adorning the Sixth Street side of Verizon Center. But the 19-year-old is clearly not trying to get too caught up in the hype surrounding him, impressing his teammates on Thursday night with his effortless ability to attack the basket, unselfishness and playmaking ability - whether he's finding Young in the corner for a three-pointer or tossing a no-look lob for McGee to dunk. "He's special. He's gifted," Thornton said. "His speed, his quickness, it separates him. Plus, he's got a pretty good IQ of the game and he's a competitor. He's very dynamic. With the pick-and-roll, he made the right decision almost every time."
Saunders said Wall's defensive instincts and intensity have stood out the most. "I feel like most of my games [in college] I gave 100 percent on the offensive end, but 80 or 90 percent on the defensive end," Wall said. "I feel like I was letting people score too much and gambling. On this level, you can't gamble too much. I want to show that I'm a person that's going to be an all-around player like Kobe, LeBron, Michael Jordan, all those guys, they did it on the offensive and defensive end, I want to be one of those type of players."
The 22-year-old McGee, who got an opportunity for extended minutes last season after Brendan Haywood was traded to Dallas, has returned on a mission to build upon that campaign. He arrived in camp seven pounds heavier and now stands 7-feet-1(1/4( after hitting an unexpected growth spurt.
"I always been growing. I just don't want my feet to grow," McGee said with a grin. "I'm just happy to have a chance and I believe we are all going to work hard and show that we deserve to be young guys playing this game. I just came in feeling like I have to work harder."
Saunders said McGee is the only player on the Wizards roster with a solid position, with the team boasting several versatile talents. The Wizards introduced another player who fits that description in Yi, a fourth-year forward who arrived in a trade with the New Jersey Nets last week.
"I don't think we're going to label him. You'll see him play all over the court," Saunders said of the 7-foot Yi, who can spread the floor with his perimeter shooting but is also capable working in the low block. Yi, 22, is on his third team and has shown only glimpses of his ability, but team president Ernie Grunfeld said the Wizards have been high on Yi for some time and was excited about the chance to get "a player of his caliber."
When the Wizards faced the Nets in late February, Yi scored 20 points and grabbed 19 rebounds. Saunders joked, "We expect him to average that for us. If you have a player who has the potential and has the work ethic and they get into the right system, they have the opportunity to flourish. I think Ernie and I both felt that our system was conducive to him reaching that potential."
After watching the summer league team work out on Friday, Yi stared out of the window from the fourth floor of Verizon Center and peacefully took in his surroundings. A native of Shenzhen, China, Yi beamed as he gazed upon buildings and street names featuring familiar Chinese lettering and was overcome with a level of comfort that he always felt when arriving as a visiting player the past three years with Milwaukee and New Jersey. "The first time I came here and played at this arena, it surprised me the arena is right in Chinatown," said Yi, who is expected to soon join the Chinese national team to prepare for the World Championships this August. "It's a real nice city. It's a home feel over here."