The Washington Wizards' last two losses haven't been pretty. After getting off to a great start on Tuesday against the Mavericks, the wheels came off in the third quarter and Washington's transition defense fell apart, largely due to a mismatched lineup made up of Kevin Seraphin, Jan Vesely, and three weak perimeter defenders. As is usually the case, neither of the young big men was able to provide much in the way of offense or rebounding, with the two combining for only six rebounds and 12 points despite playing a combined 41 minutes.
Seraphin has shown an ability to put up numbers from time to time and it's not inconceivable that he'll eventually iron out the kinks in his game and become a quality player. Vesely, on the other hand, has never been able to consistently fill up a boxscore and is losing supporters by the day. Is there any hope whatsoever for The Airwolf?
Vesely's faults -- his poor jump shot, aversion to contact, lack of rebounding, and mental lapses -- are well documented. Even if he keeps his head up and continues to work on his game, he'd have to make so much progress as a scorer and rebounder that it's hard to see him ever becoming a star in the traditional sense of the word. Good players generally don't at any point in their careers have the second worst PER in the NBA.
But if there's anything about Vesely that fans could use to fuel their optimism, it's that, despite his lack of production, the Wizards are actually surprisingly competent when he's on the floor. This year, Washington has been 6.3 points per 100 possessions better when The Airwolf has roamed the court, third on the team to Cartier Martin and Nene. His rookie year saw a similar phenomena, too, as Washington was 0.8 points per 100 possessions when he saw the court.
Why the Wizards get better when Vesely plays is one of the great mysteries of our time. OK, maybe that's a stretch, but it's a question that doesn't have an easy answer. According to NBA.com/stats, he's only played 19 of his 293 minutes this year next to Nene, so it's doubtful that he's just riding the coattails of a much better player, a la Mario Chalmers.
Washington Wizards' Overall Performance for Two-Man Lineups Involving Jan Vesely
|Points Per 48
|Plus/Minus Per 48
Data courtesy of NBA.com/stats
Vesely has particularly had success playing next to veterans. Washington has been particularly good when Vesely has shared the floor with Emeka Okafor, A.J. Price, and Cartier Martin, three players who generally know where to be on defense and whose presence can make up for Vesely's poor rotations and allow him to indulge his tendency to roam away from the basket.
At least at this point in his career, Vesely's best attribute is his length and mobility, two qualities that are increasingly valuable in big men as the NBA becomes more perimeter oriented. While being able to switch onto a perimeter player, bottle up a pick and roll, cut off passing lanes, and tap rebounds out to teammates are extremely valuable to a team's bottom line, these qualities don't have a very strong correlation with a player's ability to put up points or rebounds. Washington's defense has actually been a little bit worse when Vesely has checked in, but this could very well be a result of how many minutes he's played next to the team's worst defensive players, Jordan Crawford and Bradley Beal.
Two players who might provide a bit of hope for Vesely's supporters are Ekpe Udoh and Jason Collins. Neither big man has ever been particularly good by any traditional measure, yet their teams have always been far better when they've seen the floor. Some of this is a result of somewhat-carefully managed matchups, but for the most part, it's a testament to just how valuable a good defensive big man can be. Vesely is nowhere near as good as Udoh, especially at this point in his career, but he has the physical tools to be a very similar player.
There's no telling whether or not Vesely's defense will ever be good enough to make up for his lack of ball skills. It's doubtful he ever becomes much of a scorer and the dip in his rebounding this year is downright disturbing. That said, he doesn't need to become a 20-10 guy to in order to play a role on a decent team.
Great teams need glue guys and the next great Wizards team, whenever we actually get to see it, won't be an exception. Hopefully Vesely can live up to the hype and start to put up some numbers, but if he doesn't, that doesn't necessarily mean he's not going to be a very useful player some day.
Now, whether he ends up "living up" to being the sixth pick in the draft is another story.