Randy Wittman facing tough choices

October 26, 2012

About two hours before the Washington Wizards closed out the preseason with a 100-85 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, point guard Shelvin Mack and reserve center Shavlik Randolph were on the court, shooting free throws and running through pick-and-roll drills with player development assistant Joe Connelly.

The window to leave an impression has all but closed, and the toughest part of October has finally arrived for Coach Randy Wittman.

Throughout the past month, Wittman has used most of the 17 available players on his roster and allowed them to state their cases. But now he has until Monday to inform four players that they will need to seek employment elsewhere and until Tuesday to determine a starting five and a rotation for a team that will open the season in Cleveland without John Wall, Nene and Kevin Seraphin.

“That’s the worst thing I hate about this job,” Wittman said. “If there is one thing I could get rid of, it would be that, in all honesty. We got guys that come in here for a month, bust their tails. Each guy on this team has had a spot where they’ve come in and done a nice job. That’s the hard thing, to make those decisions.”

The picture has become clearer, but the decisions remain difficult, especially with the Wizards ending the preseason in essentially the same position as when training camp began.

A.J. Price has emerged as the front-runner for the starting point guard position with Wall out the first month of the regular season, but Jannero Pargo and Mack — players on partially guaranteed contacts — have had their moments in practices and games. With the Wizards unlikely to retain four point guards for the whole season, a job is at stake, not just a spot in the rotation.

Trevor Ariza started the most games at small forward, but Martell Webster was the more consistent option offensively through the preseason. Webster has knocked down three-pointers, blocked a few shots and flashed the athleticism that he has regained after struggling with injuries the past few seasons.

Webster also has had the two most productive scoring outings of the preseason, posting 18 points in the opener against Charlotte and 23 in Wednesday’s win over defending champion Miami. In both instances, Webster came off the bench.

“When we’re all competing, we bring the best out of each other. Guys have been stepping up,” he said. “And in practice we go at it. We go at it — to make each other better.”

Ariza didn't shoot or score particularly well, but grew more comfortable within the offense and started in three of the games that the Wizards topped triple digits.

Wittman used rookie Bradley Beal as a reserve at the start of the preseason but had a tough time keeping him out of the starting lineup because he was so consistent — he scored in double figures in the first six games — and found a way to influence the game even when he wasn’t making shots.

“He’s been good,” Wittman said of Beal. “A very poised young man. You can’t tell if he’s scored 20 or he’s scored two. He goes out and plays in a right manner and an aggressive manner. I don’t have a lot of complaints [but] he’s still got a lot to learn.”

Jordan Crawford, who finished last season as the starting shooting guard, has also shown his worth as more than just a scorer. He has led the Wizards in assists in two games and his playmaking has forced Wittman to rely on him as a situational point guard, at times sharing the floor with Beal.

With no set timetable for Nene to return from his plantar fasciitis, veteran Emeka Okafor has been the easy choice to start at center.

When healthy, Trevor Booker likely will get the shot to start alongside him at power forward. But with him still regaining his wind after missing five games because of a left hamstring injury, Wittman has gotten an extended look at Jan Vesely and let Chris Singleton earn playing time at the position.

Wittman “just told everybody, ‘Nobody is above anybody,’ ” Singleton said. “Coach set the standard for everybody, like this is an even team. I think everybody is just buying in and we’re coming together and gelling.”

The depleted front line has created more opportunities than usual for big men Brian Cook, Earl Barron and Randolph, who are all signed to non-guaranteed training camp deals. All three have had memorable outings and hope to stick.

The only obvious cut is point guard Steven Gray, a point guard who played only one minute in the first seven games. But when Wittman boarded the flight back to Washington, he had to make decisions that will affect the lives of the players and his team. Painstaking as it will be, Wittman will take a difficult choice over the alternative.

“I’d rather have it that way, than looking for questions, telling management I need some more players,” Wittman said with a laugh. “No question, but it’s still not easy.”

Wizards note: In the preseason finale, Vesely and Price both had 13 points to lead the Wizards, who finished the preseason 3-5. Barron, getting his first start of the preseason, had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Crawford had 11 points and Booker had 10. Okafor and Ariza were given the night off.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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