Coaches, teammates praise Bonga's improvement since hiatus

In June, as players across the league reported back to team facilities, front offices and coaching staffs crossed their fingers. They were unsure of the impact four months off would have on players’ physical and mental conditioning, skills, and memory of team systems and rotations. By all accounts, including recent comments from general manager Tommy Sheppard and head coach Scott Brooks, the Wizards returned to D.C. in shape and ready to hit the ground running.

But who on the team has stood out among the rest?

“I think (Isaac) Bonga,” Brooks said.

“I would definitely say Bonga,” Troy Brown Jr. said.

“I agree,” said Moritz Wagner, joining the chorus of praises sent Bonga’s way.

Wagner is particularly qualified to speak on Bonga’s growth as a player. The duo spent time together playing in Germany, played their rookie seasons together with the Lakers and were traded together to the Wizards last summer.

What exactly changed for the second-year wing? Ask Bonga and he’ll say it was the tireless work he put into his body during the league’s four-month hiatus. Over the last two seasons, Bonga said the one common theme in all the critiques that he heard from coaches was that while his skillset and length allowed him to guard and play multiple positions, his thin frame couldn’t keep up. He needed to get stronger.

“One of the biggest steps was changing my diet into eating healthier,” Bonga said. “Eating good fats as we call them. Really, the big thing was really heavy lifting and my personal food habits.”

“We know his jump shot is a work in progress and that has improved since we got him last summer,” Brooks said. “But the thing I’ve seen during this time we’ve been back together is him being able to absorb contact being able to able to play through it. He was always knocked off of his spot because he didn’t have the strength, but now he seems to be able to knock players off when he has the ball in his hands going toward the basket…I really like what he’s done with all our workouts when we weren’t able to be together. You can tell that it has paid off. He’s growing up.”

Ask his coaches and teammates and Bonga’s improvement is as much psychological as it is physical. He has a confidence and a trust in his own game that wasn’t there four months ago.

“I think he just feels a lot more comfortable in his own skin and knows what he’s capable of doing and kind of realizes that he has a body that he can use to his advantage at his position,” Wagner said. “I think you can see that. I think he trusts his defense a lot. Once the game slows down and he develops a certain comfort level, just as it is with every young player, his skillset is just going to blossom even more.”

“Bonga has done a great job of just coming in, being a leader, playing his game,” Brown Jr. said. “He does everything on the court. Whether he’s rebounding, making great passes, hitting shots. You can really just see that he’s making strides.”

On Wednesday in Orlando, Bonga and the Wizards played their first of three exhibition games leading up to the league’s restart. It was his first game action since March and his first chance to back up the praise from coaches and teammates – and he did so, deploying his Swiss Army knife skillset from the opening tip. Despite making just one field goal – a 3-pointer in the second quarter – Bonga was plus-18 in just 22 minutes despite the Wizards losing by seven. No one else on the Washington roster registered a plus-minus higher than plus-two. He registered a trio of assists and his defensive versatility was key in guarding what was a massive Denver lineup.

“He’s stepped up from day one,” Brooks said postgame. “He’s brought the juice, he’s brought the aggression, he’s gotten better. His shot is still improving, but his game, his awareness. I mean, he only played like 100 minutes his first year and he passed that after six or seven games this past season. He’s stepped up.”

For Bonga, the personal development is with one goal in mind.

“My main focus is going into games, winning them and, personally, getting better to help my team win games,” Bonga told the media earlier this week.

Bonga is still just 20 years old and has a skillset and frame prime for expansion. The restart in Orlando will provide him an opportunity unlike any he has received in his first two seasons in the league. He is likely to see more minutes, dribbles, shots and defensive responsibility than ever before. With the Wizards down their top two scorers – Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans – both wing players, the team will need Bonga to step and excel in his role. Luckily, he has a group of coaches and teammates around him eager to seem him thrive in that position.

“We all love him, his energy, his spirit and just his smile,” Brooks said. “He’s always happy and you can’t get enough happy faces in an NBA season. As we all know, it’s a grind. You have a lot of ups and downs and he’s always seemed to handle everything. I threw things at him, sometimes just to see how he would handle things and he always did it the right way. He has an entire team and coaching staff behind him. We cheer for him because he plays so hard and he’s versatile.”

“He’s a really hard worker,” Wagner said. “I’ve come to the realization that he kind of stands for what the Wizards are trying to do. Just come to work every day and give it your best and everything else is going to work out and he embodies that perfectly.”

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