Gary Neal had three major criteria as he embarked on NBA free agency for the second time in his five-year career, all of which were met by the Washington Wizards.
"I think that the biggest thing that stood out to me was just getting back to a team that had playoff expectations," Neal, who grew up in Baltimore, said during a conference call on Thursday. "Of the teams that I had on my list, Washington was the top of that list. [Then], just having the opportunity to play with a pass-first, very good point guard in John Wall, and also being from Baltimore and having a chance to come back home."
"The icing on the cake," he said, "is that it's 30 minutes from where I grew up."
The Wizards on Thursday formally announced that they signed Neal, a Calvert Hall and Towson product. The reported one-year, $2.1 million contract makes Washington his fifth NBA team and fourth since leaving the San Antonio Spurs in 2013.
"I feel fortunate … just to be in the NBA and have this, going on my sixth season in the NBA," he said. "To have the opportunity to play at home in front of all your family and your friends, it's a blessing, to be honest with you."
Neal said it's an "unbelievable story" for a player to be able to play inside an hour's drive from where he played in high school and college.
"I'm extremely thankful and grateful for this opportunity," he said.
After beginning his high school career at Aberdeen, Neal finished at Calvert Hall before earning Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year honors at La Salle in 2003. But a sexual assault allegation for which Neal was later acquitted led him to transfer to Towson, where he played parts of two seasons and led the league with 25.3 points per game as a senior.
Neal went undrafted by the NBA, then bounced around stops in Turkey, Spain, and Italy before earning a roster spot in 2010 with the San Antonio Spurs.
As a rookie that season, he averaged 9.8 points and made 42 percent of his 3-point attempts for San Antonio, and Neal remained a productive bench player over the next two seasons before he signed with the Milwaukee Bucks following the 2013 season.
Since then, he's spent time with the Bucks, the Charlotte Hornets, and the Minnesota Timberwolves before landing back with his de-facto hometown team, the Wizards.
Neal, a career 41.8 percent shooter who averages 9.9 points per game and is a career 38.1 percent shooter from 3-point range, is another rangy shooter added to the Wizards roster this offseason after their June acquisition of power forward Jared Dudley from the Milwaukee Bucks.
"Gary is a proven veteran who will bring us perimeter shooting and experience," said team president Ernie Grunfeld in a statement. "Adding him to our rotation makes our backcourt rotation deeper and more versatile."
The Wizards went to a small-ball lineup that they seldom used in the regular season during a playoff run that saw them sweep the Toronto Raptors and take the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks to six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Neal said that willingness to use small forward Otto Porter as a shooter in a small lineup, plus adding him and Dudley, gives the team "a lot of options."
"That just kind of spaces the floor to where there's nowhere you can really help," he said. "That just makes the game so much easier for a guy like John because pick-and-roll, he gets to play two-on-two, or he makes the easy pass and gets to throw it to a very good three-point shooter. I think that's what the NBA game has come to, kind of a small-ball thing."
He said the way his former team, the Spurs, have had success with small-ball — and a deep bench — are two precedents he hopes the Wizards can replicate.
Given that Porter could see a big jump in minutes after Paul Pierce's departure for the Los Angeles Clippers, Neal said his presence on the bench would improve that unit from last year, too.
"Playing against the Wizards, they had a very strong starting five," he said. "I think their starting five competed with anybody's starting five in the NBA, and I noticed that their bench was a little … it wasn't a potent bench. What I mean by potent, it wasn't an offensively dominant bench. … They didn't have the ability to maintain that 10 [point lead] because they didn't have scoring ability coming off the bench. I think that was the one thing I noticed, and that was another reason why I felt the Wizards were a good fit for me."