Pose the question of who is the player most critical to the Wizards success and you will get a slew of responses naming John Wall, a scattering of those mentioning Bradley Beal, and a couple citing Jan Vesely in a depressing and unsuccessful attempt to be funny. However, since his arrival in the District in the spring of 2012, the answer to that question has thus far been Nene. The Wizards are better both offensively and defensively with the Big Brazilian (™ Steve Buckhantz) patrolling the lane and their record in games he’s played is indicative of that improvement. Unfortunately, the key phrase in that sentence points to the fact that there are in fact enough games that he hasn’t played. After playing in all 82 games in the 2009-10 season, Nene has missed 71 games over the following three campaigns and has averaged under 30 minutes per game when he’s suited up. The Wizards know that his unselfishness and outstanding basketball IQ has allowed a lot of young players around him to grow up and learn the right way, but Randy Wittman will need 70+ games from him this season to cover up a less than impressive frontcourt coming off the bench behind him and newly acquired Marcin Gortat. Nene has already indicated that soreness is setting in and he’d like a minutes restriction when on the floor. But as the season wears on, he should regain some of the strength and conditioning he lost after a long summer layoff. We know he needs to stay healthy, but what else do we need to see from the BMOC (literally) in Washington?
Become the defensive anchor:
Last year, Nene was able to play the power forward spot for long stretches while defensive ace Emeka Okafor filling the role of last line of defense for the Wizards. Although Ernie Grunfeld made moves over the weekend to bring in Gortat, the Wizards will be using more small ball techniques this year for increased offensive punch, with Nene at center and a stretch 4 like Al Harrington at power forward. It will be critical for Nene to ensure that lineups like these do not suffer defensively, as that will remain this team’s calling card for a successful year. The Wizards allowed nearly 5 more points per 100 possessions with Nene off the court last year (106.1 vs. 101.7) so obviously he had a positive impact on that end. But unlike last year, he won’t be next to a defensive specialist even when he is sharing court time with Gortat. Expect perimeter improvements from Wall and Beal but it’ll start for the Wizards in the back with Nene.
Improve scoring efficiency:
Nene’s offensive numbers are helped by his great passing vision and movement on the court. This is evidenced by the Wizards scoring 104 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, nearly 4 points better than their league-worst mark. However, when he was counted on to score, the results were less than pretty last year. 51% of Nene’s attempts were jump shots and he had an Effective FG% of just 48% from 11-15 feet, 45% from 16-20 feet and 35% from 21+ feet. The Wizards often ran pick-and-pops with Nene and John Wall but that bailed out opponents more often than producing points. Wittman may be better off posting him up on low block and letting him overwhelm opponents with sheer strength.
Take this team to the Promised Land:
As much pressure and expectations are placed on the shoulders of John Wall, this season is just as important for Nene to guide the team to the playoffs. He isn’t the face of the franchise in the same manner that Wall is, but he will be paid $52 million by the end of the end of his contract with the Wizards and absolutely must live up to that mammoth contract. Injuries have derailed the team in his tenure so far, but the squad is fully healthy now and both management and fans alike are running low on patience. The numbers for Nene will never scream out All-NBA or even All Star but his presence and effect on the court are undeniable (think of him as a Marc Gasol-lite). It’s time to get the proof of these results off of basketball-reference.com and into the postseason.
As one of the more aesthetically pleasing big men in the league, Nene is the type of player that does a number of things outside the box score to get his team wins. The Wizards acted fast to bring him on board for his veteran leadership and basketball savvy. Finally, after two long years, this team is ready to compete (at least for a playoff spot), which is more than they’ve been able to say in any year since 2008. We all know the W-L profiles when Nene shares the court with young studs Wall and Beal. If the Wizards can get 80 games together out of them instead of 20, summer vacation plans can actually be put on hold till it gets warm.