Miami Heat v Washington Wizards
WASHINGTON, DC -  DECEMBER 30: Garrison Mathews #24, and Jordan McRae #52 of the Washington Wizards hi-five each other during the game against the Miami Heat on December 30, 2019 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC.
Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

Wizards bench stabilizing an ever-changing rotation

In a Wizards season defined so far by a high-variance offense, a relentless series of injuries to key rotation players and numerous changes to the lineup, the team’s one constant has been its depth. Beyond Bradley Beal, who ranks fifth in the league in scoring, the Wizards have no go-to secondary scorer. Instead, a cast of 10-12 players that, on any night, can step up and provide the team’s secondary offense.

The team’s injuries and constantly changing rotation has forced the Wizards bench into an unconventional role – less of a defined back-up unit subbing into the positions of the starters and more of a flexible, do-it-all collection of players whose flow and hierarchy change game-by-game. When looking at the season as a whole, no one player on the Wizards roster stands above the rest as the team’s definitive sixth, seventh or eighth man. The Wizards have 13 players this season averaging over 20.0 minutes per game and nine players averaging over 10.0 points per game, tops in the league in each category. Washington is the only team in the NBA with four different bench players with a 30-point outing and leads the Eastern Conference with 23 games of 20+ points from a reserve.

This idea was never more apparent than in a four-game stretch from late December into early January. Davis Bertans, Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura, Moritz Wagner and John Wall missed all four of those games while Bradley Beal missed three. What could have turned into a throwaway collection of games due to injuries and strength of schedule became a week-long, record-breaking demonstration of depth that galvanized the entire roster.

On December 30 against the Heat, a team that entered Capital One Arena ranked second in the Eastern Conference and third in the entire league, the Wizards bench combined for 80 points in an 18-point win. The 80 bench points eclipsed the franchise’s previous all-time high of 77, set on December 29, 1990 against Denver. Jordan McRae (29 points) and two-way player Garrison Mathews (28 points) combined for 57 of the 80 bench points and joined Ian Mahinmi, who scored 25 points, as the first trio of teammates to score 25-plus points apiece in a game in which they each entered averaging less than 11.0 points per game.

Two days later against Orlando, the Wizards were unable to match their record-breaking scoring rate, but managed to amass 57 points off the bench thanks to four reserves scoring in double figures. Against Portland just two days following, the Wizards reserves combined for 76 points, led by a 35-point outing from McRae, one shy of his career high, and double-digit scoring performances from Mathews (18 points) and Ish Smith (16 points).

Each of those performances, however, merely served as an appetizer for the show the Wizards bench was set to put on against the Nuggets on January 4. Denver entered the game at 24-10, one of the best records in the league. The Nuggets had won 10 of their last 12 games and touted their own rotational depth as their defining championship attribute. And while the Nuggets’ stars did their part – 39 points from guard Jamal Murray and a double-double from All-NBA center Nikola Jokic – it was, again, the Wizards bench that stole the show.

The Washington reserves combined for an unfathomable 92 bench points, the second-most since 1970-71, when the NBA began recording starters and bench players and the most since 1977 when the Warriors scored 94 bench points (per Elias Sports Bureau). Smith scored a career-high 32 points, including 23 in the second half, and led a 21-4 run in the fourth to seal the game. Troy Brown Jr. played perhaps the best game of his career, scoring 25 points on 10-12 (.833) shooting and grabbing 14 rebounds. Isaac Bonga scored a career-high 15 points on 5-6 (.833) shooting and rookie big man Anzejs Pasecniks added 13 points of his own.

Since that December 30 game against the Heat, the Wizards bench is averaging an astounding 63.8 points per game, over 10 more points per game than the next-closest reserve unit, the Los Angeles Clippers. On the season as a whole, the Wizards and Clippers are the only teams in the league averaging over 50.0 bench points per game – and unlike the majority of teams across the NBA, the Wizards bench unit packs its scoring punch efficiently. Washington’s bench is shooting 48.1% from the field this season, trailing only the Detroit Pistons, and leads the league in bench 3-point shooting percentage at 41.9%. In fact, the Wizards bench is the only bench in the league shooting over 40.0% from three this season.

Within the bench unit’s success as a whole are a number of individual success stories and memorable individual moments: career highs from Bonga, Brown Jr., and Pasecniks, among others; a heat check night from Mathews against Miami and “M-V-P” chants for Smith against Denver. Yet the cumulative, high-volume experience for younger players and the room for rotational experimentation the team’s depth allows is what is more likely to shape the players’ futures.

Take Brown Jr., for example, who has bounced between the starting lineup and the reserves all season as the team battles injuries, but openly admits, along with Wizards head coach Scott Brooks, how much more comfortable he is playing with the second unit.

“I would just say with the second unit I’m able to be more aggressive,” Brown Jr. said after the January 4 win over the Nuggets. “I’m able to make plays for everybody else…I’m able to make sure there is more movement.”

From December 14-January 10, Brown Jr. came off the bench in all but three of Washington’s 15 games. In those 12 games off the bench, Brown Jr. scored in double-figures in each one, including a pair of 25-point performances and three double-doubles. On the season as a whole, the second-year pro averages 12.4 points per game off the bench compared to 6.4 as a starter and shoots 50.0% from the field off the bench compared to 35.5% as a starter.

“I think guys are stepping up in the opportunity,” Smith said after his 32-point outing against the Nuggets. “The NBA is all about opportunity…We’re all stepping up, coming off the bench and taking full advantage of the opportunity.”

The next step for this Wizards team, Smith says, is taking those flashes of success and making them last.

“Once you get your opportunity and you prove what you can do, you have to be consistent,” Smith said. “I think everyone that has stepped into roles when the guys have been out have played big. We’ve got to keep it up.”

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