Can Radmanovic make a difference?
Third-year forward Vladimir Radmanovic may determine whether the Sonics make the playoffs or the lottery.
Editor's note: ESPN.com is once again visiting all 29 NBA teams during training camp and the preseason. The tour continues with a report on the Seattle SuperSonics.
SEATTLE -- Patience.
"We've been flirting with the rebuilding process for several years," Sonics general manager Rick Sund said. "But this is the first year that you can say that we're fully into rebuilding."
Without Payton haunting the hallways at The Furtado Center, the Sonics have quickly transformed from a veteran playoff team into a young, exciting squad brimming with potential.
The team has just one player, Brent Barry, older than 30 years old on their roster. Their roster sports four of the best perimeter shooters in the league in Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Vladimir Radmanovic and Barry.
In other words, this year's Sonics should be able to put points on the board with the best of them. But it's a lack of experience and defensive prowess that are raising the biggest questions going into camp.
"I like our pieces that we have," coach Nate McMillan said. "But we're younger this year and we probably don't have all the pieces it takes to be a championship team. This is a year of discovery. You let the team play, see who pans out and then you add what you're missing next summer."
Sund and McMillan are doing more than preaching patience to their dwindling fan base that's still smarting over the trade that sent Mr. Sonic -- Payton -- packing last February.
The message is also meant for the ears of Radmanovic, the team's highly talented but consistently inconsistent third-year forward.
Radmanovic stewed last season when undrafted rookie Reggie Evans started 60 games while the former Sonics lottery pick watched from the bench.
This year, Radmanovic made it clear that he expects to win the starting power forward job. He was in Seattle all summer working on his game. He even skipped his national team duties for Team Serbia during the European Championships to stick closer to home.
"I definitely want to start," Radmanovic said. "I'm a shooter and when you have to come off the bench, you come into the game cold. I prefer to get my shot going early. Sometimes it's hard to do that off the bench."
Radmanovic said his minutes are also more consistent when he starts.
"If you start, you get to play like 20 minutes for sure. Maybe more if you play well," Radmanovic said. "I am in my third year now. I worked hard this summer. I think I'm ready for more responsibility."
For the first few days of camp, Radmanovic was looking over his shoulder at rookie Nick Collison.
Collison drew raves from his teammates on Team USA this summer. Both Allen Iverson and Allen went so far as to predict that Collison could win the Rookie of the Year award this season. While Radmanovic was guarding summer leaguers during the offseason, Collison was learning from Tim Duncan, Jermaine O'Neal and Elton Brand on a daily basis.
The experience had Collison confident about his chances of winning substantial playing time in Seattle this season. However, a dislocated shoulder ended his season just four days into camp leaving Radmanovic with only one other player to beat at the four.
With the re-signing of Evans to a guaranteed contract, the Sonics are looking at a two-man battle for playing time at power forward. Each guy brings something different.
Radmanovic is an explosive scorer with a sweet outside touch. Evans is a blue-collar rebounder who likes to mix it up in the paint.
Last year, Evans got the starting job, but it was Radmanovic who played at the end of games.
"With so many good scorers on the team," McMillan said, "we were able to steal minutes for Reggie if we started him. We needed the scoring Vlade provided coming off the bench. We didn't need it in the starting lineup."
This year, however, Sund and McMillan are privately hoping that Radmanovic emerges. The team will need Radmanovic to realize some of his star potential if they want to compete for a playoff spot.
"We know we need three stars to have a real chance at competing in such a tough conference," Sund said. "Obviously Ray Allen is a superstar. Rashard Lewis has shown us that he's a very good player on the brink of becoming a star. We need one more guy to step up. This year we've got to see if that guy is here. If he is, great. If he isn't, we'll have to go get him next summer."
|“||He's got so much talent. But he just needs to keep growing more. He needs to make better decisions, play better defense and just fit in with what we're doing. He's just 22 years old. It will come. I'm not sure when, but I think it will come. ”|
|— Nate McMillan on Vladimir Radmanovic|
Sund and McMillan both marvel over Radmanovic's potential. But two years into his NBA career, Radmanovic has yet to put it all together. Last season, he struggled offensively in the post and defensively on the perimeter. At times, he looked like he was a player without a position.
This year, McMillan hopes to find better a fit for Radmanovic by giving he and Lewis more freedom offensively. Lewis developed a nice post game toward the end of the season, while Radmanovic has always been more comfortable launching 3-pointers. On defense, the opposite is true. Radmanovic is one of the team's better interior defenders. Lewis has the quickness and the length to guard most small forwards in the league.
"The nice thing about our team is that we have a lot of interchangeable parts," Sund said. "With the exception of Luke (Ridnour) and Jerome (James), everyone on the team can play at least two positions. That can be a real strength for us as the season goes on."
That's why McMillan and Sund are quietly preaching patience to Radmanovic. While Radmanovic is obsessed with starting, McMillan is obsessed with something more important -- finishing.
"He's got so much talent," McMillan said. "But he just needs to keep growing more. He needs to make better decisions, play better defense and just fit in with what we're doing. He's just 22 years old. It will come. I'm not sure when, but I think it will come."
And if Radmanovic makes a Nowitizki like jump in his production this season?
"Then you can raise those expectations," McMillan said. "We're looking at the playoffs and maybe even a little more. We'd be a very dangerous team."
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN.com's ESPN Insider.