Nations: Wizards’ success is a gift

Have you noticed the trend?

Everywhere I travel these days, the phenomenon is apparent. Lifelong Washington Wizards fans are being born every minute — full-grown, no less, and sporting newly-bought John Wall jerseys.

That’s not meant as a criticism, though. It’s a natural reaction to a suddenly successful regional franchise. The bandwagon is rolling along now for the Wizards, and it seems that every unattached or loosely affiliated NBA fan — sports fan, even — is climbing aboard to enjoy the ride.

I’ll admit it — I’m as guilty as anyone. By misfortune of my upbringing, most of my professional sports affiliations are aligned with the Motor City. Being a Detroit Pistons fan isn’t exactly rewarding these days, and the Wizards are just the sort of lure to pull in a fair-weather fan like me — young, overachieving, flashy and still teasing that much more will come from all that potential.

For you Wizards fans unaccustomed to winning — yeah, all of you — try to keep this sparkling postseason run in perspective. You may well never be as happy with this team as you are right now.

Think about it — heading into this season, not all that much was expected from Washington’s historically downtrodden franchise. Sure, Wall had shown glimpses of the talent that made him the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NBA draft when he managed to stay healthy enough to play. Bradley Beal, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, had settled into a nice combo with Wall last year during his rookie season. The Wizards had an interesting backcourt, exciting even, but what else did they have going for them?

Other than another year of experience from Wall and Beal, this didn’t appear to be an excitement-worthy roster. Nene used to be good before injuries took their toll, Trevor Ariza a nice complementary piece for a team that appeared to need much more, and Marcin Gortat was the only keeper in the blockbuster deal that sent Emeka Okafor packing from the Wizards.

Coach Randy Wittman took over the team in January 2012, drag the Wizards though another disastrous season that began with a 2-15 start. Instead of sleepwalking through the rest of the year like his old boss Flip Saunders, Wittman actually got the Wizards to play with some fire. They finished the year 20-46, and looked primed to take that next step last year.

Instead, Wall missed half the season with a knee injury and the Wizards sputtered to a 29-53 record.

What a difference a year makes, not to mention a healthy knee. Healthy at last, Wall started playing up to his All-Star potential while Beal continued to progress rapidly after shouldering the scoring burden during Wall’s absence last year. This season, the Wizards’ backcourt turned all that potential into performance.

As it turns out, the rest of the roster wasn’t half-bad, either. Nene did miss time with an injury, but when he’s been on the court the big Brazilian post player has been a savvy and steady at the very least. Gortat blossomed during Nene’s absence into another legitimately strong option in the frontcourt, while Ariza has been simply outstanding as deep threat.

Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld deserves plenty of credit for quietly assembling this eclectic roster, and for filling holes as needed by picking up valuable veterans like Drew Gooden and Andre Miller during the late-season push for the playoffs.

You know the rest — the fifth-seeded Wizards needed only five games to swat away a tough and battled-tested Chicago Bulls squad in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Then on Monday night against the top-seeded Indiana Pacers, the Wizards took it to the hosts from the opening tip en route to a 102-96 victory in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. Beal scored 14 of his team-high 25 points in the first quarter, Ariza drained all six of his 3-point attempts and finished with 22 points, Gooden came off the bench to throw down a double-double, and Washington’s frontcourt manhandled the Pacers for a 53-36 rebounding advantage.

The Wizards are a thrill a minute, partly because it has been so unexpected this season. With each win, the team endears itself further with its rapidly increasing fan base. Worst case — lose four straight — and Washington has still likely built enough buzz to have its fans eagerly awaiting what’s next.

Expectations have a way of taking much of the joy out of fandom — this season has been a pure bonus in the eyes of most Wizards fans. Next season this will be expected, and more.

So enjoy the ride for now, not knowing where it might take you. And when you have a specific destination in mind next year, remember what a gift this season has been.

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