Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards
WASHINGTON, DC -  MARCH 6: Rui Hachimura #8 of the Washington Wizards high fives his teammate during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on March 6, 2020 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC.
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Storylines to watch as the Wizards arrive in Orlando

With the Wizards’ touching down in Orlando on Tuesday night and the NBA hiatus nearing its end, the Wizards’ front office staffers, coaches and players addressed the media over the last week and a half, discussing their time off, preparations for the restart, protocol in Orlando and more. For months, fans and media alike have been left to speculate vaguely about the most interesting topics surrounding the NBA’s restart, each team’s playoff chances and what the time off might mean for each franchise. Now, those storylines are close to coming to fruition.

Here we take a look at three of the top storylines surrounding the Wizards’ return as the team gets ready to begin its training in Orlando.

Whose game has changed in the time off?

The league’s hiatus began nearly four months ago, on March 12. Since then, players across the league have been confined to their homes with access to varying amounts of basketball- and fitness-related resources to keep their bodies and skillsets fine-tuned. The Wizards training staff provided fitness kits to all players, including weights and resistance bands, and hosted Zoom workouts and yoga sessions to keep players connected and in shape as much as possible.

Despite efforts from across the organization, an unexpected four months away from basketball is a variable teams have never had to account for. Would players fall out of shape? Get in better shape? Lose their shooting touch? Develop a new skill? No one knew. As players have worked their way back into the gym over the last few weeks, those questions are beginning to get some very positive answers.

“Seeing everybody in shape, I feel like that’s the biggest thing that made me happy as a teammate because I knew that I was working at home,” Troy Brown Jr. said. “Just to come in and have guys working out and have everybody be in shape already without having to take time to make guys run extra just to get guys into shape.”

Thomas Bryant was one of many players that used the time off to focus on improving their physical conditioning.

“My mindset has been total tunnel vision of getting my body right whether it was on the court, but especially in the weight room,” Bryant said. “Getting the lower body right and upper body, losing body fat, gaining more muscle – and that’s exactly what I did.”

Strength and conditioning progress was evident on day one. For others, like Rui Hachimura, who focused on improving their on-court skillset, the results will have to wait. To this point, players have been limited to individual workouts with team staff. It won’t be until later in July that players will engage in full-team workouts, practices and scrimmages leading up to Washington’s first seeding game on July 31 against Phoenix.

Hachimura said his goal was to hold on to his shooting touch and to continue to develop a versatile game, knowing that multi-positional play is what will be asked of him as his career progresses.

“I was mostly working on shallow threes and mid-range and stuff,” Hachimura said. “I feel like I’ve gotten more confident in my threes and my mid-range. That’s come from how much I have been working out and stuff…I think it’s more about confidence.”

“Other than my shot, I’ve been working on ball-handling,” Hachimura continued. Obviously, the team wants me to play the three and four in the future, so I’ve been working on ball-handling and court vision.”

Moritz Wagner, well known for his aggressiveness and willingness to throw his body around in the paint, says he made a concerted effort to get better control of his body on the court.

“I think the biggest thing that we worked on was just being lower, being more stable, having the game slow down with your movements a little bit and control yourself a little better,” Wagner said. “I worked a lot on my mental stuff, which is an ongoing process anyway. I think the general thing is to just be low in everything you do and have the game slow down for you a little bit.”

Striking a balance between developing and competing

All season long, the Wizards stressed the importance of development and putting the team’s bevy of young players in a position to get better on a night-by-night basis. Now, Washington and a number of teams across the team are grappling with how to balance a continuation of those development efforts with the opportunity to make the playoffs in the league’s sprint-like setup: eight games in 13 days with all participating teams within reasonable reach of a play-in series to earn the final spot in each conference’s playoffs.

Last week, Wizards general manager Sheppard made very clear the team’s intention upon traveling to Orlando:

“We’re going there to win games,” Sheppard said. “We’re going there to try to make the playoffs. That’s 100% our goal.”

On Tuesday, the Wizards announced that Beal, the team’s unquestioned leader, who averaged 30.5 points per game before the season’s suspension, would not be traveling to Orlando with the team as he continues to nurse and shoulder injury. Beal’s absence, according to Sheppard, changes nothing about the team’s approach. Instead, it just provides a greater opportunity for the young core and one of the deepest rotations in the league – second in the league in bench scoring – to contribute to those winning efforts.

“Troy Brown Jr. is in his second season in the NBA and he’s ready to step into more minutes – and this opens that up for him,” Sheppard said on Tuesday. “Certainly Ish (Smith), Shabazz (Napier) and Ian Mahinmi – those guys don’t want to hear that we’re going to Orlando to develop. They want to go there to win. All of our players want to win…We’re going to have to play everybody. When you think about eight games, three scrimmages – that’s 11 games in a short amount of time. Everyone is going to contribute. We don’t want to leave there and not have a good opinion of what every player that we’re taking can do. We go there with the mindset that we’re going to develop and keep playing all those guys. But we’re going there to win. I’ve said that from the jump. That’s why you play games in the NBA. You’re trying to win these games.”

Continuing to improve on the defensive end

All season long, the Wizards’ offense has led the way for the team. In the earliest stages of the season, the team’s defense struggled immensely, giving up 120-plus points in 13 of the team’s first 24 games. While the offense still serves as Washington’s primary threat, the defense has made strides since it’s early season woes. After allowing 120.9 points per game in both December and January, Washington dropped is opponent per game scoring average in both February (116.1) and March (115.8).

Consistently noted throughout the team’s media availabilities over the last week and a half has been the focus they have put on keeping up that progress on the defensive end. If the offense can maintain and the defense can reach even a league average level, the Wizards’ outlook would change dramatically.

“If we play good defense, we have a great opportunity to make the playoffs,” Hachimura said.

Hachimura noted that the team has dedicated significant time to improving the defense, even as they all worked remotely during the hiatus. Film sessions with the coaching staff over Zoom, specially with the younger players on the roster, were particularly helpful, according to Hachimura.

Smith, one of the team’s most seasoned veterans, has played for 11 teams in his career and has been a part of just about every roster makeup one could imagine. Smith said the Wizards’ young roster explains a lot of the team’s struggles on the defensive end and that the steady improvement over the course of the season is unsurprising and hopefully just the beginning. All the team needs is more reps, to continue to get more comfortable with one another and to communicate – and that Orlando provides a perfect opportunity to make those things happen.

“You have to understand, when you think of vets, you think of Davis (Bertans), you think of Brad (Beal), you think of myself, you think of Ian (Mahinmi),” Smith said. “Everybody else is young. Everybody else has not played. Whether it’s their first, second or third year…communication is huge. Being connected is the biggest thing in defense. Being able to communicate; call out coverages; being on the same page; making first, second, third, fourth efforts. The communication part can be difficult…That’s something that, as we’ve grown this year, coach has kind of harped on: communicating…When you communicate…it’s putting guys in the right place with their voices.”

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