Leonsis wants to change culture of Wizards

WASHINGTON (AP) - Owner Ted Leonsis believes his Washington Wizards can become a "destination" - the sort of NBA team top players strive to join.

That will take some time, Leonsis acknowledges. He makes it clear that the Wizards are still early on in the process of reconstructing around No. 1 overall draft pick John Wall.

Leonsis used the word "build" or some version of it more than a dozen times, as in: "I hope I've been honest and transparent ... (about) rebuilding the team."

Coming off a 23-59 season, Washington will play the first of its two exhibition games against the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night at home. The Wizards' first regular-season game is Dec. 26, at home against the New Jersey Nets.

The abbreviated preseason and 66-game regular season come after a lockout, and Leonsis opened his appearance Thursday by talking about a documentary he watched recently about the founder of Ferrari.

"He was the first race-car owner and driver to get rid of the rearview mirror on the car. And when they asked him why, he said, `I don't want anyone looking back. I want my drivers only looking forward.' And I think that's an appropriate way to kick off the season," said Leonsis, who voted in favor of the deal that ended the work stoppage.

"We just came off a couple of months where there was lots of angst and drama and discussions and pixels being generated. I don't care about any of that. ... I'm very excited and very positive about what we're building here," he continued.

Leonsis probably would prefer if fans agree to not look back at the lockout - or at the way things have gone lately for the Wizards, both in terms of wins and losses and the gunplay episode involving Gilbert Arenas.
Ticket sales are on the rise, Leonsis said, and he vowed that the on-court product will improve to the point that Washington becomes a place people want to go.

"We'll have enough assets to make trades and have cap space at some point to bring in difference-makers, and I hope to have our team ... considered a destination where players want to play," Leonsis said, "and that will come from filling the building. Everyone knows that this is a fantastic city."

It all starts with Wall, the second-year point guard who is being counted on to lead on and off the court. Having just turned 21 in September, he's the youngest player on the roster - but hardly the only young player.

There could be 10 players on the team who are 25 or younger, including Andray Blatche and draft picks Jan Vesely of the Czech Republic, Chris Singleton of Florida State, and Shelvin Mack of Butler.

"I want to see upside. I want to see improvement. I want to see chemistry being developed. And I want to see how the young kids play," Leonsis said. "The only way we're going to know whether we drafted and we developed well is if they get the minutes, and so I'm more concerned with process right now than output, although we're here to win."

In the next breath, he added: "So I want to see us winning more games."
There is plenty of work to be done, given that the Wizards did not add any stars via trade or free agency during this most unusual of offseasons.

"Bottom line: We want to win games. But we're in that gray area, where we want to win games, but have a lot of players to develop," coach Flip Saunders said.

Leonsis completed his purchase of the Wizards in June, adding them to the NHL's Washington Capitals. He oversaw the Capitals' rebuilding, thanks in large part to No. 1 pick Alex Ovechkin, from a bottom-of-the-league team to a perennial division champion.

He hopes to have the same type of success with Wall and the Wizards, and spoke about "changing the culture of the team."

"I've spent time with John, like I've done with Alex Ovechkin with the Caps early on. I tried to prepare him for what we we're going to go through together. And made commitments to him, which was: We're going to work really, really hard together to turn the team around," Leonsis said.

Noting that he "didn't see hope" when he acquired the club, Leonsis said that team president Ernie Grunfeld and Saunders have bought into his philosophy of how to fix things with young players.

"We'll wake up in a couple of years," Leonsis said, "with a whole class of players going into their prime - and we'll have cap space."

Wall certainly has heeded the owner's message.

"Basically," Wall said Thursday, "it's a rebuilding process for us."