NBA Preview: Wizards get progress right

Rookie Beal, veteran additions help Washington be all it can be.

A quick glance at the Washington Wizards’ roster makes one thing pretty clear: They got better.

In these days of highlight shows and overhyped stars, it’s sometimes hard to remember that general improvement is the most realistic path. But it is, and as far as that goes, you have to give the Wizards a hearty thumbs up.

Seriously. Compare this year’s roster to the start of last season. Gone are the knuckleheads, shameless gunners (well, except for maybe Jordan Crawford) and general reasons for team discord. In their place are lunch-pail types who offer underrated contributions without the ball. Think Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza and Nene.

Of course, the biggest reasons for hope remain the dynamic types  youngsters such as John Wall, Bradley Beal and even Jan Vesely.

Wall is entering his third season, the year in which most coveted draft picks get things figured out. He’ll now have Beal next to him, and that’s a nice change from last season. Beal may actually pass the ball back on occasion. On top of that, the rookie shooting guard really looks like he can do something with it. So far, Beal’s comparisons to Heat star Dwyane Wade seem on target.

As for Vesely, he’s already only one of the most athletic bigs in the league. Slowly but surely, he’s adding NBA-level basketball skills, too.

All of this, of course, does not make the Wizards instant title contenders. They probably won’t even make the playoffs.

But no one goes from being one of the most-dysfunctional teams to the conference finals in a year. Instead, you just try to improve, add the proper pieces, entertain and compete.

If that's truly the goal here, the Wizards have done their job.

Last season: 20-46, did not make playoffs.

Coach: Randy Wittman (seventh year, 118-238).

Top returnees: PG John Wall, C Nene, SF Jan Vesely.

Key additions: SG Bradley Beal-r, C Emeka Okafor, SF Trevor Ariza.

X-Factor: Crawford. After drafting Beal, most folks figured Crawford was history. But that no longer seems the case, and keeping Crawford isn’t so bad. With a stable cast around him, Crawford’s role of coming off the bench and putting up shots (and points) might actually be welcome. At times, he and Beal can even survive stretches together. But Crawford is pretty much the lone representative of the bad old days of last season. How he adjusts to a more mature line of thinking could be key.

Strengths: Wall speeds up and down the floor with the greatest of ease, fast-breaking all the way to the basket. Once there, he usually tries to finish, but the newbies around him could supply motivation to become a better set-up man. Either way, the kid is constantly a threat. Vesely and Beal can run alongside Wall, with Nene and Okafor cleaning up the mess. Basically, despite the roster turnover, the Wizards remain one of the league's most athletic teams. Only now they have some brains to go with it.

Weaknesses: Besides the on-again-off-again Crawford, there’s not a whole lot to brag about off the bench here. And Crawford occasionally causes fans to throw large objects at their television sets. Just about everyone else in reserve fits the description of “hard worker who busts his tail.” That’s swell and all  but not nearly close to enough.

Outlook: In theory, the Wizards will be more competitive and increase their winning percentage. In reality, they may be better than that. But it will require good health (see the above depth issues), quick growth from the young backcourt, and probably a banner year from an unforeseen source. Hey, it’s possible. If not, this is a team that will still be fun, even in defeat.

Prediction: 33-49.

2012-13 schedule: Link

FOX Sports: Wizards home

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