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Wizards' young core growing as a group
On November 20, the Wizards defeated a veteran San Antonio team 138-132. Bradley Beal notched another 30-point performance and DeMar DeRozan’s 31 points led eight Spurs scoring in double figures. The veteran guards carried their respective offenses in similar ways, but the makeup of their surrounding casts differed substantially.
Of San Antonio’s eight players scoring 10 or more points, five were 30 years old or older – DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge, Patty Mills, Rudy Gay and Marco Bellinelli. Entering the season, the Spurs roster was one of the most veteran-heavy in the league, ranking fourth in average years of experience (5.67), according to the NBA’s 2019-20 Roster Survey.
The Wizards roster, however, is built on youth.
As of November 18, the Wizards roster features seven players age 22 or younger, tied for the most in the league. The Wizards have three players in that age range averaging 12-plus points per game, tied for the most in the league. And the Wizards have five players in that age range averaging 15-plus minutes per game, tied for the most in the league. Four of the Wizards’ 12 most used lineups by minutes played feature three players age 22 or younger.
The Wizards roster is not just loaded with young players – it’s driven by its young players and it depends on its young players.
Four Wizards age 22 or younger have started a game this season – Troy Brown Jr., Isaac Bonga, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant – and Moritz Wagner, who has yet to crack the starting lineup, has been one of the most productive bench players in the league. No team in the NBA is putting more young players in a position to prove their worth more than the Wizards.
The Wizards offense has been one of the biggest league-wide surprises of the season, ranking top-five in offensive rating. Through 12 games, the Wizards have scored 120-plus points six times, led by a 158-point performance against the Rockets, and have topped 100 points in all but one game.
“When you have a lot of younger players, there are a lot of things to learn,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said. “There are a lot of things coming at each guy. Offensively, sometimes it can be easy to take ‘my shot’ instead of a team shot. I give these guys a lot of credit…Our group has done a good job of moving the ball and sharing the ball and finding open shooters. It’s been fun to watch, fun to coach and I’m sure, for them, it’s been fun to play.”
As is the case with most young teams, however, the Wizards have struggled on the defensive end. Washington allowed 120-plus points seven times through 12 games and holds a defensive rating among the league’s worst.
Washington’s high-flying offense is nothing to scoff at, but Brooks knows that if the team wants to make headway toward long-term contention, the defense will have to improve, however challenging that may be with a young group.
“We want to keep improving our players that don’t have a lot of experience to get better (defensively),” head coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s hard to guard a lot of players in this league when you come from the college level or you haven’t played a lot of NBA minutes. They’re going to get better and I believe in their willingness to get better.”
Brooks is putting players in position to show what they bring to the table early in their careers. Not in short-leashed spurts that discourage risk-taking for fear of getting benched, but in long, drawn out shifts and in lineups that allow players to flourish or fail in real time.
Brooks is no stranger to the challenges of coaching a young roster. He got his NBA head coaching start in 2008 on an interim basis with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a team led by a pair of 20-year-old future MVPs, Kevin Durant and Russell
Westbrook. Durant, Westbrook and Jeff Green – who was just 22 at the time – led the team in minutes played. The Thunder finished 13th in Western Conference with a 23-59 record.
The following season, Brooks was named NBA Coach of the Year as he and his arsenal of young talent, which now included another future MVP in then-20-year-old James Harden, finished with a 50-32 record, good for fourth in the Western Conference. Over the next four years, Brooks’ young Thunder teams won at least 55 games each season, excluding the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. That year, Oklahoma City went 47-19, the third-best record in the league, and went on to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Brooks has shown and ability to accelerate young players’ development in the earliest stages of their careers. Getting the most of out of Bryant, Hachimura, Wagner and Brown Jr. will go a long way in setting the course for the next chapter of Wizards basketball. In less than a year, the Wizards will reunite one of the best backcourts of the decade. As Beal and John Wall reacclimate themselves to playing together, much of the Wizards’ success will be predicated on the ability of their surrounding pieces to operate as a dynamic, cohesive group. That cohesion comes with experience and communication.
“You have to be able to (communicate),” Brooks said. “We have a lot of quiet guys…They’re great guys, but they have to be able to have more of a voice on the floor. That takes time. There aren’t a lot of young players that feel confident that they can talk and direct some of the veterans on the floor. We have a culture – we want everybody to talk and communicate and have a say. But it takes time. We’re going to continue to work and be patient with them, but we want to see improvement in that area.”
However, Brooks is not alone as the veteran voice of the locker room. The Wizards roster, including Wall, features five players with at least 20 games of playoff experience.
Wall and Beal have made four playoff appearances together, including three Eastern Conference Semifinal runs. C.J. Miles has played in a team-high 44 playoff games, including 10 during Utah’s 2010 run to the Western Conference Semifinals, averaging 14.4 points in 33.7 minutes per game. Isaiah Thomas made three consecutive playoff appearances with the Boston Celtics, including his famed 53-point performance against the Wizards in the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Davis Bertans has played in 23 playoff games over a three-season run with the San Antonio Spurs.
That balance between youth and experience can bring the best out of both groups. The veterans see the infusion of fresh legs and athleticism and know they can’t get complacent. The new faces have the chance to soak in as much information as they can from players that have been there before. The young players know their role is work hard and be attentive. The veterans know their role is to educate and lead by example.
“You still want to hold everyone accountable,” Beal said. “You don't want to develop bad habits or get into a mindset that it's OK to miss assignments or slack off here and there. Even if you're having a bad game, you can still impact the game in other ways than scoring. I've learned that from my rookie year until now…There's that fine line of knowing that we are young, we may have (bad games). But at the same time, we don't want it to be OK. We're not just accepting it.”
The Wizards hope the process won’t take long. Using the 2019-20 season as a crash course for their young core paves a faster path to realizing those players’ true value and will paint a clearer picture of the franchise’s assets next season when the team returns to full strength.
“We are young, but we are trying to build an identity,” Brown Jr. said. “Right now, that starts with playing hard, and everything else will fall in place.”