The Wizards' Czech Republic Basketball Experiment

Ernie Grunfeld has drafted two players from the Czech Republic. One was a bust. The other? A viable long-term point guard to John Wall.

The District of Columbia’s cosmopolitan downtown vibe seems to attract Czech Republic basketball stars. Ernie Grunfeld has selected two players from the Czech Republic during his tenure as the Washington Wizards’ general manager (2003-present). This is exactly two more selections than the other 29 general managers combined. Czech Republic stars Jan Vesely (1st round, 6th overall in 2011) and Tomas Satoransky (2nd round, 32nd overall in 2012) were both scouted as high-flying, athletic playmakers who would fit well into an evolving NBA, where positionless talent ran up and down the floor, defended everyone, and defied positional stereotypes. Grunfield being prescient, wrong, or a bit of both, may now be paying off for the Wizards.

Trial One: Jan Vesely (2011-2014)

Vesely was the sixth overall pick in 2011, indicating that Grunfield and the Wizards believed he could be a pivotal long-term piece to a young Wizards’ team in desperate need of a fast and athletic front-court running mate to complement John Wall. This was a Wizards team devoid of viable, long-term talent. Andray Blatche, Nick Young, Rashard Lewis, and JaVale McGee were the locker room leaders, as Wall was still developing his voice on and off the court. Vesely was a rookie from the Czech Republic who spoke very little English. The combination of a dysfunctional Wizards’ roster and Vesely’s foreign background hardly contributed to his being a relatable presence in a locker room full of veteran journeymen and youthful immaturity. In parts nearly three seasons with the Wizards, Vesely played in only 141 games and averaged 3.5 PPG and 3.4 RPG. Looking back, Grunfeld’s first Czech Republic basketball experiment may have been doomed from the beginning.

Attempting to sell the narrative that Vesely should still be stateside (he is currently starring in the EuroLeague) and running with the Wizards is difficult to achieve, but longing for “Air Wolf” is appropriate and timely. The Wizards lack true playmaking bigs who can keep up with Wall in transition and match up with opposing playmaking bigs on the defensive end (playing small with Kelly Oubre, Jr. or Otto Porter, Jr. at the power forward position is fun, but they are often overmatched defensively). Could Vesely be serviceable for the Wizards today? With Ian Mahinmi and Jason Smith currently coming off the bench, Grunfield’s lottery pick may have been just fine for today’s team.

Vesely’s length (6’11”) and athleticism supported his ability to sky over everyone and wreak havoc on defense with his tireless energy. While the timing of Vesely’s introduction to the Wizards and NBA was suboptimal, he did show glimpses of being the capable running mate Grunfeld drafted to catch and dunk Wall’s passes, slash to the rim, and block shots. Grunfield did not draft Vesely for his shooting ability (Vesely never spent time beyond the arc and shot 41% from the free-throw line), but rather, for his playmaking abilities above the rim and on defense. A quarter (25.5%) of all Vesely’s field goal attempts were dunks (while an imperfect comparison, Dwight Howard’s dunk rate in his young seasons in Orlando was 25.3%), and if you extrapolate his numbers, Vesely blocked 2.3 shots per 100 possessions in his final NBA season. For comparison, current Wizards’ “rim protector,” Mahinmi, blocks 1.5 shots per 100 possessions and starting center, Marcin Gortat, blocks 1.2 shots per 100 possessions.

Not only does Vesely seem competent compared to the Wizards’ current stable of bigs, but he is arguably comparable to Dario Saric, an important, young bench player for Philadelphia:

Per 100 Poss Table
Dario Saric 2017 2018 104 54 2786 8.3 20.2 .412 2.4 7.7 .318 5.9 12.5 .471 3.5 4.5 .787 2.8 8.7 11.5 3.9 1.2 0.7 3.8 3.7 22.6   98 109
Jan Vesely 2012 2014 162 25 2455 5.5 10.6 .521 0.0 0.0 .000 5.5 10.5 .523 1.3 3.3 .408 4.7 7.1 11.8 2.0 2.2 1.8 2.6 8.1 12.4   101 103
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/7/2017.

Vesely had a better defensive rating than Saric, while averaging more rebounds, blocks, and steals per 100 possessions. Offensively, if PPG are overlooked, Vesely shot a better percentage and had a better offensive rating per 100 possessions. Comparing Vesely to opposing utility players is useful because it shows what Vesely might have been if former head coach Randy Wittman and the Wizards had developed Vesely properly. A lottery pick in an old-school coach’s doghouse is doomed to fail.

Vesely not being part of Wall’s own “Wolf Season” is unfortunate. Vesely was ridiculed during his brief tenure in D.C., some of it warranted (he couldn’t shoot jumpers, hit free throws, and was often lost in half-court offensive sets), but his ineffectiveness could also be attributed to Wittman’s reluctance, or refusal, to unleash and support his full complement of skills. Vesely’s value clashed with Wittman’s desire for tight, traditional systems. Vesely might have thrived under current head coach, Scott Brooks. The Wizards will never find out. Grunfeld’s first Czech Republic basketball experiment was an unfortunate bust.

Trial Two: Tomas Satoransky (2016-Present)

Grunfeld’s second Czech Republic basketball experiment, Satoransky, may be proving the general manager is correct in looking to Prague for talent. After staying a few years in Europe to develop his skills, Satoransky spent his first NBA season primarily on the bench. An injury to Wall this season, however, has pushed Satoransky into a prominent role, playing point guard for extended minutes. With the inconsistent play of current starting point guard, Tim Frazier, Satoransky seems to be now auditioning for the role of primary backup point guard once Wall returns.

Fans watching the Wizards run without Wall find it a difficult visual to digest. Bradley Beal taking over primary playmaking duties for his teammates has seemed to affect his own scoring and effectiveness (when Beal shuns this duty and decides to score, however, he can go off for a career night, like when he scored 51 points in Portland), Marcin Gortat is completely useless without his pick-and-roll partner, and Markieff Morris takes difficult shots to overcompensate for Wall’s absence. It’s a mess. Enter Satoransky, though, and the offensive flow seems much better with the bench. The bench, including Satoransky running the show, is often creating leads or closing deficits. The top three lineups using Satoransky as point guard are all producing positive net points per 100 possessions (including an impressive +50.2 points when playing with Beal):

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
      Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net
Lineup Tm MP
I. Mahinmi | J. Meeks | K. Oubre | T. Satoransky | M. Scott WAS 53:37 +1.0 -2.0 +.021 0.0 -5.1 +.073 +.023 -1.0 -3.0 +.051 +1.0 -1.0 -4.5 -5.1 -4.5 -3.0 -6.8 -6.1 +5.1 +1.0 +2.0 -0.5
T. Frazier | I. Mahinmi | J. Meeks | T. Satoransky | M. Scott WAS 18:52 +3.3 +18.8 -.059 +9.9 +11.6 +.274 -.009 -13.7 -13.9 -.152 +2.8 +4.6 +4.9 -6.1 +4.9 -1.3 -3.0 +6.8 +8.2 0.0 -1.2 +6.4
B. Beal | I. Mahinmi | K. Oubre | T. Satoransky | M. Scott WAS 12:36 +6.2 +0.2 +.058 +17.0 +9.8 +.323 +.140 +20.8 +9.0 +.833 +50.2 +12.7 +32.9 +27.0 +32.9 +20.4 +41.7 -11.2 0.0 -0.2 +4.2 0.0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/7/2017.

Meanwhile, the top three lineups using Frazier as point guard are all producing net neutral or negative points per 100 possessions:

Regular Season: 5-Man Combinations Table
      Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net Net
Lineup Tm MP
B. Beal | T. Frazier | M. Gortat | M. Morris | O. Porter WAS 149:44 +1.0 +7.3 -.026 -3.4 -12.1 +.051 -.049 +1.5 +0.8 +.063 0.0 -1.3 -4.4 -5.2 -4.4 -3.2 -6.8 -0.2 +5.2 -1.4 -6.6 -1.8
T. Frazier | I. Mahinmi | J. Meeks | K. Oubre | M. Scott WAS 75:35 -3.4 +1.6 -.047 -4.3 -2.9 -.106 -.073 +3.5 -1.0 +.140 -7.6 +3.8 +5.5 -0.4 +5.5 +2.0 +4.3 -3.8 -1.0 0.0 +3.9 +4.7
T. Frazier | I. Mahinmi | J. Meeks | K. Oubre | O. Porter WAS 19:35 +8.9 -15.4 +.216 -2.0 -8.9 +.065 +.215 -15.1 -22.8 +.058 +0.7 -2.2 +8.3 +22.3 +8.3 +11.0 +30.8 +1.1 -11.7 0.0 +26.4 +12.3
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/7/2017.

Satoransky brings a dynamism that benefits the Wizards in a way a traditional backup point guard cannot offer. The Czech’s 6’7’ frame is long enough to cause trouble for opposing point guards defensively (although Satoransky needs to make defense his main area of improvement) and big enough to get to the rim almost at will. Satoransky has proven efficient (16.1 PER) and his 5.4 assist/turnover ratio ranks third in the NBA (Frazier has a 10.9 PER and 2.5 assist/turnover ratio).

  Photo taken by Keith Allison

While Satoransky’s career is young and he’s getting an extended run only because Wall is out, he is showing off why Grunfield spent a 2nd round pick on another Czech. While Vesely may have fizzled for various reasons, Satoransky as a long-term backup point guard for Wall, or as a utility player off the bench, may be the score the Wizards needed. One for two isn't bad.

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