Where Are They Now: The Ballad of Jan Vesely


There are plenty of former NBA players floating around the world basketball circuit, holding on for one more paycheck, one more year playing the game they love, perhaps one more shot at the league. Not many of them are former top-10 picks.

Former  Washington Wizard Jan Vesely was once a young, promising forward from the Czech Republic with stars in his eyes, but three demoralizing years of NBA basketball have sent him dipping back to Europe. Now, he’s just another big-league washout, trying to find himself again overseas.

As of the writing of this article, the Wizards are 18-6. Life is good. John Wall is an MVP candidate, and we all get to bask in the luminous glory of Rasual Butler’s nightly three-point barrages. But let’s think back to June 2011.

The Wizards had surrounded a young, unproven John Wall with nothing but mercurial knuckleheads (and Maurice Evans) – Flip Saunders had repeatedly done hideous dishonor to the very idea of defense – the Wizards had cast out Gilbert Arenas, abandoning the last vestige of the good old days – and, oh yeah, the Wizards had just gone 23-59.

Then, as the team with the fourth-best odds in the NBA Draft Lottery, the Wizards ended up dropping down and getting the sixth pick. After rumors they would move up to grab Turkish center Enes Kanter, the Wizards instead went with a relative unknown: Jan Vesely, a 21-year-old forward from Serbian powerhouse Partizan Belgrade.

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Sure, we could’ve had Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard, but it wasn’t that difficult to talk yourself into Jan Vesely. He was tall, young, and freakishly athletic, and thoughts of him running the fast break with John Wall were enough to make your mouth water.

We know how this story ends. While Airwolf often took to the skies, his NBA career completely failed to get off the ground. The 2011 draft class, also including Chris Singleton and Shelvin Mack, became one of the most thorough disasters in recent Wizards history.

Vesely found himself unceremoniously shipped to Denver for Andre Miller last February, playing 21 games with the Nuggets and then hitting the free agent market, his fourth-year option having already been declined by the Wizards.

As he told Basketmag.cz in October (and as Truth About It’s Lukas Kuba so graciously translated), Jan was sick and tired of sitting on the bench in the NBA – and when he didn’t get an offer he liked in America, he jumped at a two-year offer from defending Turkish champions Fenerbahçe Ülker. The sixth overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, Jan Vesely was out of the league just three years later.

For Vesely, Fenerbahçe isn’t a bad fit. In fact, it might be a little bit like coming home. Although a Czech national, Vesely spent the balance of his pre-NBA career in Serbia for Partizan Belgrade – during his time there, he became acquainted with a former Partizan star named Zeljko Obradovic, who since his playing days had gone on to a long career as head coach of Greek power Panathinaikos. Obradovic is now the head coach of Fenerbahçe, and Vesely has said he’s comfortable under the Serbian style of coaching.

Fenerbahçe also employs shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, a 2014 first-round pick by the Suns and a former Partizan teammate of Vesely’s. In fact, the team is full of players who have floated on the periphery of the NBA. Fellow Serb Nemanja Bjelica was drafted by the Wizards in 2010, before his rights were traded as part of the deal that brought Trevor Booker to DC.

The Wizards held the rights to team captain Emir Preldzic for several years after the Antawn Jamison-to-Cleveland trade – in July, the Wizards dealt his rights to Dallas in the sign-and-trade deal for DeJuan Blair. Center Semih Erden spent two years in the league with the Celtics and Cavaliers. NBA fans are most likely to remember Andrew Goudelock, a nondescript guard who memorably was pressed into the starting lineup for two Lakers playoff games in 2013.

And most importantly, Fenerbahçe is really good. The team has won six Turkish titles, including last year’s, which was Obradovic’s first season with the club. Fenerbahçe is participating in the 2014-15 Euroleague, the top basketball competition in Europe and FIBA’s answer to the UEFA Champions League. The stage is all set for Jan to shine – he’s part of one of the top teams in the world outside of the NBA, surrounded by former NBA players and draft picks, and with a coach who knows him well.

So far, the season’s gone swimmingly for Fenerbahçe, and Jan has been rejuvenated. Vesely’s nine points and five rebounds a game in Turkey don’t jump out at you, but the European game has never lent itself to eye-catching individual stats, and the team leader in scoring, Bjelica, is only averaging 13 points a game.

Airwolf’s taking flight again, as he did when he was young and we believed in miracles. His defense, always underrated during his Wizards days, has been a huge boost to Fenerbahçe – and he’s even doing stuff like this now. Jan’s even doing much better at the free throw line: 54.3 percent, nearly 30 percent higher than the rate he posted in his last days in DC.

Vesely’s stepped up bigger in the Euroleague, which is played concurrently with the Turkish league season. In European competition, Jan is averaging 10 points and a team-leading 6.2 rebounds, and his contributions are a major reason why Fenerbahçe has qualified for the Euroleague’s final 16.

On December 11, Jan played center and lifted Fenerbahçe to a massive overtime victory on the road against traditional European behemoths FC Barcelona (featuring Tomas Satoransky and Juan Carlos Navarro!) with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Afterwards, he was named Fenerbahçe’s player of the game.

And most importantly, Jan seems to be enjoying himself. Slowly but surely, Jan Vesely is recapturing the joy and the energy that made him a top-10 pick. Jan may never want to return to the NBA, and I can’t blame him. In America, Jan will forever be judged against his draft position, judged against the fact that a dumb, dysfunctional team made a dumb, dysfunctional decision with a high pick. Overseas, none of that matters. He’s free to be Jan Vesely, Cool Dunking Man.

Oh star-crossed Jan, the Airwolf of our dreams, we see brighter days ahead. Carry on, my wayward Jan. There will be peace when you are done.

Next: Self Debate--John Wall, MVP Candidate?