OK, I’m back on the bandwagon. It may have taken a whole year, but I’ve finally found some reasons for optimism for next season’s Washington Wizards. The Wiz are 6-3 over their last nine games, and, dare I say it, they’ve actually been kind of (gulp) exciting. But forget this season, as most already have. Next year could put the District back on the map and back in the playoffs if Washington’s front office can put together a solid draft and offseason.

The pieces are already in place for a playoff team: John Wall is the franchise; JaVale McGee is the athletic finisher and shot blocker; Nick Young’s the shooter; Andray Blatche can mesmerize at times (when he’s in shape); and guys like Rashard Lewis, Trevor Booker and Maurice Evans are solid players to have around. But perhaps the most integral piece for next year is rookie sensation Jordan Crawford. Since arriving in a February trade, Crawford has been the Wizards’ most complete player (yes, better than Wall). His shot has been erratic at times and he’s had some rookie mistakes, but Crawford gives Washington a guy who can create shots for himself and his teammates. And despite Young’s career year, it should be Crawford who opens the season as Washington’s starting guard in October.

Young, primarily a one-trick pony, can’t offer what Crawford can: He’s a dynamic playmaker who can run off buckets in the bunches and handle the point guard duties. His 39-point eruption against Miami was just a tease, along with his triple-double posting against Cleveland. But it was his 17-point, six-assist game against Boston on April 11 that won me over. He played with poise and control, sank critical shots at critical moments and played off Wall beautifully. The rookie duo of Crawford and Wall has the potential to grow into one of the league’s premier backcourt sophomore teams. Add Young’s scoring abilities off the bench and Washington’s backcourt suddenly becomes deep, athletic and frightening.

With the backcourt already in place, Washington’s main summer job will be finding a low post threat or a multitalented small forward. I’ve pleaded with partners all season that the 6-foot-11-inch Blatche would be better served coming off the bench and playing multiple roles, à la Lamar Odom. His strong close to the season (24 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block per game over his last seven games) provides hope, but we saw that script in 2010 when he closed the year strong en route to a contract extension.

A top five draft pick is definitely in the cards for the Wizards and this time around, they won’t be shipping out a high pick for two average veterans for a year’s worth of service. Arizona’s Derrick Williams, Baylor’s Perry Jones or North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes would look great in D.C. next year. During the middle of the season and B.C. (before Crawford), I had pretty much given up on a free agent joining the lowly Wizards. But the addition of a top draft pick and the potential of Wall and Crawford could entice some up-and-coming freshman to join the fray.

But look at me jumping the gun. There’s still a lockout to avoid and players to draft before I get excited about the 2011-2012 Wizards. But looking at this team right now and their potential, how could you not be excited?

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO