Smith making his case to start opening night

The seven-footer will get his fourth start in the preseason at power forward Friday night

When the Wizards announced that Markieff Morris would miss six to eight weeks on September 22, there was no clear favorite to replace him in the starting lineup.

Scott Brooks made it clear from the beginning that it would take a team effort to replace Morris. Whomever was given the nod to start in Morris’ place would not fill the void alone, emphasizing that Morris’ projected absence in the first month or so of the season will require more than just one player to step up.

“We have versatility; we have depth; we can go in many different directions,” Brooks said at Media Day in late September. “We can go small, we can throw Kelly [Oubre Jr.] in there, we can throw Jason [Smith] in there. Mike Scott we can put in there. But there’s a lot of players that we can throw into the mix. We will miss him, but I feel confident in the group.”

Jason Smith has started three of the Wizards’ four preseason games so far, and is expected to start Friday night against the Knicks. He worked hard during the offseason to extend his range, struggled from beyond the arc in his first two games, making only one of his eight 3-point attempts. But, in the team’s fourth preseason game at Miami, Smith went 4-for-5 from deep and 7-for-8 overall for 20 points. In the preseason overall, Smith is averaging 11.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 17.7 minutes per game, shooting 60.0% from the field.

After Wednesday’s game, Smith was obviously more confident in his jump shot, which is his clear value on the floor. An energy guy off the bench the majority of his career, Smith has turned himself into one of the top knockdown big men in the league.

“Seeing the shot go down today was good for my ego, my spirit,” Smith said after the game in Miami. “I know I can make the shot I just gotta go out there and do my due diligence in practice and warmups. That’s just a tribute to John [Wall], Brad [Beal], and Otto [Porter Jr.] attacking the basket; they attract so much attention that I just gotta be right in there vision, ready to shoot that ball.”

Smith crunched film all summer long and has continued to do so with the Wizards’ coaching and developmental staff. Even at age 31, he has worked hard to prepare himself to fill Morris’ role in the starting lineup and giving him a chance to extend his career.

“He’s really developed his three-point shot. Give credit to him and the staff. They worked on it last year and it’s paying off. It’s paying off and we need his three-point shooting,” Brooks said after the game Wednesday.

Kelly Oubre Jr. got the start against the Cavaliers in the Wizards’ third preseason game, with Smith resting. Brooks wanted to see how his smaller lineup would fare with Oubre at the three-spot and Porter moving to the four. Oubre has played well in preseason, scoring in double figures in all four preseason games. The third-year wing is averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in 23.3 minutes per game. His shooting numbers will not blow anyone away (42.1% FG, 26.7% 3PT), but Oubre has been doing the little things with his hustle and defense that have impressed. At this point, Oubre has shown that his style of play makes the most sense to come off the bench. Still, against a smaller starting lineup, Brooks could decide to roll with Oubre at the three and Porter at the four.

Mike Scott was another option to start for Morris, but has not cracked the starting lineup during the preseason. Brooks and the coaching staff like what he brings off the bench, meshing well with a group of Tim Frazier, Jodie Meeks, Oubre, and Ian Mahinmi. Scott has had a solid preseason, averaging 9.8 points and 3.5 rebounds in 19.0 minutes per game. He’s knocked down a lot of jump shots, but did struggle with seven turnovers against the Cavaliers. Like Oubre, Scott’s role seems to mesh best off the bench.

With the Wizards’ last preseason game on Friday night in New York, Brooks will have another opportunity to see which way he wants to go with his starting lineup. No final decisions will likely be made until next week, but Smith has certainly made the strongest case to start. All three players provide energy and hustle off the bench, but Smith’s skill set and experience likely gives the Wizards the best chance to win.

The Wizards welcome the Philadelphia 76ers to tip off the 2017-18 regular season on Wednesday. We know John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr., and Marcin Gortat will be in the starting lineup.

Will Smith be the last one to crack the lineup?