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Wizards’ young core gaining valuable experience in Orlando
When the Wizards first learned they would be participating in the NBA’s restart in Orlando, head coach Scott Brooks knew immediately how valuable the experience would be. Zoom workouts and remote meetings during the league’s hiatus had served their purpose, but to get the young team back on its developmental schedule, Brooks knew in-person, on-court interaction between player and coach was essential. One month and four seeding games in, the experience is already paying off.
Washington’s young core isn’t just racking up empty minutes. The unique circumstances surrounding the Wizards and the NBA have created a near-perfect developmental opportunity for the team. In Orlando, each team is playing for something. All 22 teams invited to the bubble arrived within reach of the postseason. The nightly competitiveness looks closer to playoff basketball than non-playoff basketball has ever looked, even as some teams see their postseason hopes thinning. There are no nights off. Excluding sleep and the occasional golf or fishing outing, coaches, players and staff are eating, meeting and practicing together more than ever before.
It goes even further for the Wizards. Without leading scorers Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, Washington’s less experienced players are playing more minutes and taking on more possession-by-possession responsibility than they would be able to otherwise.
“This is a great opportunity for our team,” said Wizards head coach Scott Brooks. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, in this situation, ‘It’s going to be tough on you, tough on your team.’ I don’t look at it that way. I think this is a great opportunity for us to put a lot of intensity on each game…It also gives a chance to evaluate some of your younger players and see how they play in these situations…We have a lot of guys who don’t have a lot of NBA experience so this is great for them.”
In fact, the Wizards are depending on contributions from their younger players more than any other team in the bubble. Washington has five players under the age of 24 averaging at least 25.0 minutes per game: Isaac Bonga, Troy Brown Jr., Thomas Bryant, Rui Hachimura and Jerome Robinson. No other team in Orlando has more than three such players, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
Through four seeding games, Bryant is playing the best basketball of his career. Coming out of Wednesday’s matchup with the Sixers, Bryant has registered three-straight double-doubles against a trio of stout defensive centers – Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen, Indiana’s Myles Turner and, most notably, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Against the Nets, Bryant totaled 30 points and 13 rebounds – season highs in each category – and a career-high four 3-pointers. Against the Pacers, 20 points and 11 rebounds. Against Embiid and the Sixers, 19 points and 10 rebounds.
When considering how progress in Orlando will impact Wizards teams in the years to come, Bryant’s standout performances on the defensive end are most important: active feet, clean shot contests, communication and plenty of shot blocking. Over the last three games, Bryant is averaging 3.0 blocks per game, including a career-high four against the Sixers on Wednesday.
“It was the best defensive game I’ve ever seen him play,” Brooks said after the game against Philadelphia. “He was aware. He was anticipating. His hands were up and he jumped. When you just do those two things, you give yourself a chance to get a defensive stop at the rim. I thought tonight, like I said, he was outstanding pretty much on both ends.”
That defensive presence will be crucial to rounding out lineups centered on John Wall and Bradley Beal that will have no trouble putting points on the board.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” Bryant said. “Keep improving every day. That’s my main thing, just to keep improving, especially on the defensive end, guarding multiple positions, taking the challenge head-on and being a guy this team can (count) on.”
But Bryant is just one of a handful of young Wizards players excelling in an expanded role.
Brown Jr., whose usage rate has jumped from a pre-hiatus 17.0% to 21.8% in Orlando, has carved out a role heavy on playmaking and facilitation, further evolving what was already one of the more versatile skillsets on the team. Brown Jr. has two eight-assist games during the seeding period, including a 22-point, 10-rebound, eight-assist game against Brooklyn. Brown Jr. has established a good rapport with Bryant in the pick-and-roll. According to NBA.com, nearly 20 percent of his passes – 7.8 per game – are directed at Bryant, including several highlight reel dimes through traffic.
Already a proven rebounder, the second-year wing has excelled in that department as well, totaling seven-plus boards in three of Washington’s four games. Brooks has talked on more than one occasion about how comfortable Brown Jr. is in a “positionless” role and how valuable that can be to the team going forward.
After a 21-point, eight-rebound showing against Phoenix, Hachimura has been held in check in the last three games. But Brooks says those performances have more to do with opposing defenses than they do Hachimura’s capabilities.
“(Hachimura is) the main focal point in everybody’s scouting report,” Brooks said. “He’s our number-one option right now so that’s one thing – and then everybody’s locked in on him and loading up on him…I like his demeanor. He’s not frustrated.”
Brooks also noted that opposing defenses had more opportunity to crowd Hachimura and other members of the Wizards’ frontcourt as the team struggled to knock down threes. With Beal and Bertans out of the lineup, Robinson has taken on more of that 3-point responsibility. Strong shooting performances against Phoenix and Philadelphia – a combined 6-10 (.600) from deep – have bookended off-games against Brooklyn and Indiana.
For Brooks, there are plenty of positives to be taken from the flashes and standout games from young players, but the true test, the ultimate developmental goal, is to raise each player’s baseline expectation on a night-by-night basis. Can double-doubles become the norm for Bryant? Can Brown Jr. be a go-to playmaker to take some of the weight off Wall and Beal next season? Can Robinson become a player defenses have to account for on every possession behind the 3-point line?
“In order to be in this league and be productive and have impact and playoff impact, you have to be consistent,” Brooks said. “(Thomas Bryant) did a great job (against the Nets), came out and bounced back much better and Troy (Brown Jr.) did the same. Now, can they do it again? Coaches want that reliable player who you can pencil him in how he’s going to play and it shouldn’t be so many up-and-down, roller coaster games.”
Over the final four seeding games, the young players will continue to take top billing. Win or lose, the experience gained and data gathered from those outings will be invaluable.
“Our mission, our job, our goals have not changed,” Brooks said. “I know we’re not happy with (the win-loss record), we fought hard, we gave ourselves a chance to win…but our job is still the same. Come out here and get better every day. These are valuable minutes that we all need. We all know who’s not here and who will be back next season. That’s the bonus of being here. We get to play and get better and improve as a team.”
“I get these (losses) on my record,” Brooks said. “(The players) don’t get them on theirs. They just have to keep working, keep getting better and focus on the things that we talk about that are important. Going forward, this is going to help us. It’s definitely going to help us in the long run when everybody is whole. This is a valuable experience that a lot of teams don’t get but we get to get it. We’re competing. We’re not wasting these games, these times or these minutes.”