New-look Wizards see opportunity in the unfamiliar

On Monday, Bradley Beal met with the media for over 20 minutes, discussing the team’s progress throughout the preseason and the potential he sees in young teammates like Deni Avdija and Daniel Gafford. He opened up about leadership, Sean Taylor and his affinity for Aaron Rodgers. Mid-way through the wide-ranging conversation, Beal delivered an honest, concise outlook for the team and what he thinks it can accomplish this season.

“It’s what we make it,” Beal said. “Obviously it’s winning. We have to do that. But we create it. We create our environment every single day.”

The Wizards view themselves as a blank slate, which presents both challenges and great opportunity.

On Wednesday night, the team will head north to take on the Raptors in their first game of the year. In an NBA season that will be defined by a return to the familiar ways of years’ past – an 82-game regular season and arenas full of cheering crowds – the Wizards have spent the weeks leading up to October 20 embracing the unfamiliar.

A new coaching staff, led by Wes Unseld Jr., oversees a team that underwent a makeover as significant as any across the league this summer.

Beal enters his 10th season in the NBA and is coming off a season in which he earned an All-NBA nod and notched his second-consecutive season averaging at least 30.0 points per game. He leads a roster featuring seven new faces, most of which are expected to play an immediate, consistent role.

Spencer Dinwiddie, a dynamic, lengthy point guard who averaged 20.6 points per game in his last full season in Brooklyn, headlines the incoming group of five veterans acquired in the five-team deal that sent Russell Westbrook to the Lakers. Dinwiddie, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Aaron Holiday and Kyle Kuzma are each expected to be rotation regulars.

Unseld Jr. was tasked with getting Beal, the collection of newcomers and Washington’s returning contributors – including Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans, Daniel Gafford, Raul Neto and more – acclimated with one another on limited time. The Wizards played just four preseason games coming off a shortened offseason that will hopefully mark the end of the NBA’s pandemic-affected calendar.

“We’re getting chemistry down on the floor, understanding where help is going to be on defense, spacing on offense, our roles and all of that,” Beal said Monday. “Now we’re diving in, expanding our playbook a little more, expanding our concepts more.”

But with so many new faces in the locker room, the preseason acclimation process over the course of the last month meant more than just learning the Xs and Os of Unseld Jr.’s new system. Equally important has been each player’s efforts to familiarize themselves with one another on a personal level – to learn personalities, quirks and ticks; what motivates certain players and not others – and how they can best help one another succeed.

“We’re working on chemistry, we’re working on building relationships as a whole,” Gafford said after Monday’s practice. “There are a lot of new things that people are not used to. It’s a whole new staff. It takes time to get used to that. But everything is starting to click. Everything is starting to fall into place like we want it to.”

After the Wizards’ preseason finale on Friday night in New York, Unseld Jr. said he was less concerned with the team’s preseason win-loss record than he was with seeing how key pieces of Washington’s rotational puzzle would fit together. On that front, the Wizards gave their new coach reasons for optimism. Beal (10.2), Caldwell-Pope (5.2), Dinwiddie (2.8) and Gafford (2.3), all likely starters heading into Wednesday night’s season opener, ranked 1-4 on the team in net rating throughout the preseason – and the infusion of new, rotation quality players gave Unseld Jr. a surplus of options to tinker with.

“The flexibility and depth is really exciting,” Unseld Jr. said earlier in the preseason. “You can play small, you can play big, you can bump guys down, you have multiple ball-handlers who can create and finish. The amount of shooting we can put on the floor is a tremendous dynamic to have. It gives you a lot of flexibility and allows you defensively to do a lot of different things.”

One of the most intriguing storylines to follow will be how he chooses to deploy his two preeminent guards. Throughout the preseason, Beal and Dinwiddie each started all four games, but were often staggered as each game progressed.

“I think early in the regular season I will continue to do it that way,” Unseld Jr. said on Monday. “…Trying to keep either of those guys on the floor I think would be a great idea. We’ll look into the actual minutes logged to see where we stand but it gives us some flexibility. Both guys can play both positions. I think sometimes making Brad a primary ballhandler has been good for us.”

As if Washington’s opening-night depth and flexibility was not already enough, reinforcements are on the horizon. Rui Hachimura, who missed training camp and the Wizards’ preseason games due to personal reasons, recently returned to the team facility and Thomas Bryant continues to rehab the left ACL injury that ended his 2020-21 season in January. Neither have a set timetable to return, but will feature significantly into the team’s plans once they are back on the court.

While October and November performance is hardly indicative of where Washington will stand come playoff time, the Wizards will learn quickly where their current form stacks up in the Eastern Conference. Starting with Wednesday’s season opener in Toronto and Friday’s home opener against the Indiana, Washington begins its season with eight-straight games against East opponents, six of which come against teams that qualified for the Play-In or Playoffs. 15 of the team’s first 17 games are in the East.

“I think we have a high ceiling,” Beal said. “Obviously when we get guys back healthy, get (Thomas Bryant) back, get Rui (Hachimura) back in here and back acclimated, I think we’ll be really, really good. Obviously we want to make it to the playoffs and have home court…I think we can be that caliber team. Obviously we’re not there yet. We still have a lot of work to put in.”

“We’re just looking to come in here and change the culture,” Harrell said. “We’re looking to come in here with a winning mindset and get the District and the whole city back to a state of belief.”

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