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As the Wizards have spent the last two weeks playing their best basketball of the season, the Erie BayHawks, home to a handful of Wizards’ players for the 2021 G League season, are experiencing similar success. Through 10 games, the BayHawks sit alone in first place in the league standings at 8-2, thanks mostly to a six-game winning streak from February 15 to February 23.
The Capital City Go-Go, the Wizards’ G League affiliate, opted to flex-assign four players (Jordan Bell, Yoeli Childs, Caleb Homesley and Marlon Taylor) and send two-way rookie Cassius Winston to the Pelicans’ G League affiliate to the G League's Orlando bubble comparable to the NBA’s last summer. While the full Go-Go organization is not present in the G League bubble, its attendance is not limited to players. Capital City also sent coaching and support staff members, including newly hired Go-Go general manager Amber Nichols.
As if the on-court results were not evidence enough, Winston said the process of blending the two teams has gone remarkably well.
“It’s not easy to have a group of so many individuals thrown together and have it work out as smoothly as it did,” Winston said. “It’s a credit to the team. We’ve got a really unselfish group that wants to win games and compete at the highest level. When we go out, everyone is just focused on winning the game, and that’s hard to do, especially at the G League level where, realistically, everyone is there for themselves, individually, to get to the next level. We are too, we’re just doing it in a way where we want everyone to do that. Sharing the ball, taking good shots and playing to win games.”
Winston, whose rights were acquired by the Wizards on draft night, spent training camp and the early weeks of the NBA season with the team in D.C., but has since carved out a substantial role for himself in the G League. Winston ranks first on the team in assists (5.5) and second on the team in minutes (30.3) and 3-point percentage (44.9).
Bell, who spent time with the Wizards earlier this season, leads the team with 17.6 points per game and has shot at least 75.0% from the field in all but one of his seven games this season.
Of the 18 teams participating in the G League bubble, Erie ranks second in the league in net rating and top-five in both offensive and defensive rating. The BayHawks’ eight wins have come in a variety of ways this season. In the second game of the year, they shot 57.0% from the field and scored 138 points in a shootout with Raptors 905. Less than a week later, they earned a win over the Lakeland Magic in a 94-90 defensive battle in which both teams shot less than 20.0% from 3-point range. On February 22, they came down to the wire against a Delaware team that was, at the time, undefeated. After trailing by as many as 14 in the third quarter, Winston helped lead a BayHawks comeback and sealed the win with a difficult driving layup in the final 10 seconds of the game.
“Big games, big moments, that’s what you play for,” Winston said. “That’s the best part about basketball. You’re playing somebody at their best. That type of thing excites me. I love being in big moments where it means something. It makes all the work fulfilling.”
These days, that work has taken a more singular focus in the eyes of the G League players present in the Orlando bubble.
“The only thing on your mind really is basketball,” Winston said.
Much like the NBA’s Orlando bubble last season, the environment provides for a distraction-free, basketball-centric approach. Players’ daily schedule may rotate based on game times, but he contents of the days are generally the same: eat, sleep, get treatment and play. Winston says that while it can be challenging at times, the experience has been far better than he expected and that he appreciates the chance to lock in on improving his craft.
“You get a chance to chill out, focus on your body, focus on basketball – the things that you really need to focus on,” Winston said.
“They’re doing a great job making it work,” he added. “Every day, making sure you get in your recovery, taking care of your body and monitoring the stuff you put in your body – the amount of water you’re drinking, sleep, all those types of things. You’ve got make sure you handle those things physically so you’re OK. From a mental standpoint, you have to take a break. Read a book, watch a movie, talk to family members about something besides basketball – do all those types of things that just let you be a person, be a human. Recognize that it is basketball, we love basketball, and it means a lot to us, but there are other things out there that you need. You get a lot of time in a day…the rest of the day you have to figure out ways to help you be in a good space.”
The players aren’t the only ones getting the opportunity to develop and showcase themselves for the next level. Nichols, who was announced as Go-Go general manager on January 15, has been in the bubble with the team from the start. In addition to her general manager duties, Winston says Nichols is a constant presence, even helping out a practice when the staff needs an extra hand. Mike Williams, a player development coach for the Wizards and assistant coach for the Go-Go, has served as head coach for Erie twice this season.
“It’s a good opportunity for a lot of people,” Winston said. “Everyone there is on the same mission, the same goal of trying make the best out of this opportunity, but knowing that there is something more that you want and that you’re working for. Everybody’s working, everybody’s trying to break through, trying to do it the best way they can. It’s pretty cool to see.”