A good friend has been pestering me for weeks with the same question: What the hell happened to Jan Vesely? He was awful to start his career, improved significantly over the course of the season and by the end of the year looked like he could carve out a role as a versatile defender who at least wouldn't get in the way on offense.
And then...after an off-season presumably spent working as prescribed the team's coaches and trainers, after a full training camp, the former sixth overall pick in the draft has turned in one of the worst seasons since 1977-78, which is when my stats database begins.
NBA careers usually follow a fairly familiar pattern. A young player enters the league, struggles initially, but improves a bit in his second and third years. Major improvement is generally finished during a player's fourth year, although the typical player will have peak production at age 25-27. At that point, the player will typically maintain something close to that peak production until age 30-32, at which point production drops.
Not Vesely, though. After showing promise at the end of his rookie year, he's somehow managed to get worse at nearly everything -- adjusted for pace, he's shooting slightly less often per minute (but worse), he's getting fewer rebounds, fewer steals, fewer blocks, and he's scoring fewer points. His turnovers and assists are about the same, but he's fouling more. About the only thing he's doing better is getting fouled a bit more often, but...he's shooting 31.4% from the free throw line.
That's not a typo. From the free throw line -- Vesely is shooting 11-35 so far this year from the free throw line. When it comes to crummy free throw shooting, Vesely is close to the worst...ever. Since 1979-80 (the NBA's three-point era), Vesely has the league's 10th worst FT% among players with at least 400 total minutes and at least 30 free throw attempts.
Before I get into historical comparisons, here's a look at Vesely's month-by-month progression using PPA (a stat I developed that credits players for things they do that contribute to winning and debits them for things that don't. PPA is adjusted for pace, accounts for defense, and includes a "degree of difficulty" factor based on the level of competition a player faces while on the floor. In PPA, 100 = average, higher is better, and 45 = replacement level):
When looking at other players who posted a similar PPA as 21-year old rookies, Vesely's abrupt decline is even more disconcerting. Because I can't find a player whose production just fell off a cliff. Here's a look at similar rookies and their second year PPA scores:
dipped again to a 36 in 3rd season, but recovered to be a solid contributor
became an All-Star level contributor for several seasons
had three more above-average seasons before declining
remained below average until age 24 when he abruptly improved
went on to a Hall of Fame career
continued to be an above-average producer for several more seasons
somehow played seemingly forever despite being a below-average player
Some Wizards fans have compared Vesely to Jared Jeffries, another long, mobile defender type who struggled on offense. Like Vesely, Jeffries began his NBA career at age 21. Jeffries was even worse -- his rookie PPA was just 54. Of course, he tore his ACL that season so the sample size was small.
Jeffries' second season was worse, but his PPA dipped just to 40 -- a shade below replacement level. He got better, posting an 83 in his third season with the Wizards and a 90 in his fourth. Then he left for free agent riches in New York and never approached that level again.
Before Vesely was drafted, the scouting sites DraftExpress.com and NBADraft.net compared him to Andrei Kirilenko, Mike Dunleavy and Joe Alexander. Leaving aside age as a consideration, here's how these players' first two seasons compare with Vesely's:
Mike Dunleavy Jr.
Alexander's second season barely happened -- he played just 29 total minutes that season.
There may be a player in NBA history who managed to look like he might be a decent player in his rookie season, and then followed it up with one of the worst seasons in league history despite having reasonably good health. I can't find him, though. Young players usually improve.
Now, of course, I turn to the million dollar question: Why? And, after poring through an array of statistical resources, I'm honestly stumped. Vesely's FG% around the basket is down, but his jump shooting is actuallya little better. I can't find any reason why his free throw shooting would plummet from "not good but acceptable" to historically bad. Nothing obvious pops out on video.
He's just worse.
My best guess is that Vesely didn't put in the off-season work necessary to come back better than he was as a rookie. There were rumblings during training camp of Vesely not being in shape, perhaps lending credence to the "inadequate off-season work" theory. And, perhaps being out of shape and unprepared for training camp made him easy pickings for his teammates, which then hurt his confidence and put him in a spiral of poor performance begetting worse.
It doesn't help that every time he has yet another crappy performance, fans are reminded of the "could have been" -- because, of course, Vesely was picked ahead of Kenneth Faried and Kawhi Leonard.
Unless Vesely puts in the work this off-season, he'll go down as a colossal bust -- perhaps the worst sixth pick in league history.