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Posted October 15, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Nations: Healthy Wizards worth watching

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Jeff Nations

I admit it -- I have "expectations" heading into this NBA season.

No, I'm not referring to the Miami Heat, the Thunder, the Spurs, the Lakers, the Nets, the Suns, the Mavericks or just about any other franchise which has played head and shoulders over the Washington Wizards for the past five seasons or so.

What in the name of Agent Zero, right?

It's true, I'm actually looking forward to catching some Wizards games this season, and not for the hilarity factor, either. This is what a healthy John Wall and a couple interesting months at the end of last season will do to you ... expectations.

This is not about NBA championships. It's not about Eastern Conference titles, either, or even divisional championships. Deep playoff run, maybe? Probably not.

My expectations are a bit more humble, but compared to the last few seasons of misery for Wizards fans they might still seem far-fetched to some. This is, after all, a franchise which hasn't sniffed the playoffs since 2008.

Does that postseason drought end this season? I think so, which is as bizarre to write as I imagine it must be to read.

Start with that flourish last season, when we finally saw the Wizards' backcourt of point guard John Wall and shooting guard Bradley Beal healthy and together on the court. Washington was a .500 team from that point on, and knocked off a few playoff teams in the process.

Health -- that's always the trick with the Wizards. Wall's knee injury early last season derailed the team's slim playoff hopes (and that 0-12 start didn't help, either). The former No. 1 overall pick is back to full strength and should finally be ready to realize his enormous potential as one of the league's top playmakers. Washington rewarded that potential with a maximum $80 million extension, betting that Wall is still the franchise player the team thought it had drafted four years ago.

Wall's presence made Beal look like an entirely different player on the court last season. As a rookie, Beal had his ups and downs as the team relied on him to provide a consistent scoring punch. Wall missed 33 games last season with his knee injury, but Beal was also sidelined for 26 games dealing with his own injury issues. When healthy, Wall and Beal flashed more than just potential to be one of the league's best backcourts. They should be, if their health holds up this season.

The supporting cast also looks better than last year, health-wise and talent-wise. Washington added depth by taking former Georgetown wing Otto Porter Jr. with its lottery pick (No. 3 overall) in this year's draft. He's the long-term replacement for veteran forward Trevor Ariza, but could be polished enough to contribute this season.

Nene, fresh off his boo-filled greeting for last week's preseason game in his native Brazil, also looks better than a season ago when he dealt with his own nagging ailments. Nene is no fresh-faced rookie, for certain, but he still provides the Wizards with a legitimate threat and solid defensive presence in the interior. Nene will likely see most of his time at power forward, with reliably tough defender Emeka Okafor manning the middle.

The Wizards also added veteran forward Al Harrington and backup point guard Eric Maynor via free agency to provide even more quality depth for a team that has sorely lacked it in recent years. Add in small forward Martell Webster, who delivered a career-best season last year, and improving big man Jan Veseley, and this Wizards roster looks better than any since the days before Gilbert Arenas' knee injury and unwise locker room antics helped implode the franchise.

Head coach Randy Wittman, who took over the mess that was the 2011-2012 season in January 2012, should finally have a roster capable of making at least some noise in the Southeast Division. The Wizards won't be catching the Heat, but the Hawks look a bit more vulnerable this season.

I expect the Wizards to finish second in the Southeast this season. I also expect Wall to stay healthy all season. If the latter doesn't happen, I expect the former won't, either. That's expectations for you, always dependent on something. In this case, any lofty thoughts about this year's version of the Wizards begins and ends with the health of John Wall. Without that, Washington isn't going anywhere once again.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>. Follow on Twitter @J_NationsNVD


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