For one month earlier this summer, Wizards forwards Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. spent a couple of hours a day working on the Verizon Center practice floor. They hustled through ball-handling, shooting and defensive drills with oversight from former Wizards assistant coach Ryan Saunders and David Adkins, hired later in the summer to serve as the Wizards’ player development assistant.
It was the beginning of a crucial offseason for Porter and Rice. Both registered limited playing time during their rookie campaigns, unable to crack the Wizards’ rotation as the team soared to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-05 season. They will compete against each other to become the primary three-man off the bench this season, but they first envisioned forming a potent tag team in the Las Vegas summer league.
“We were talking about it before we went,” Porter said in a recent phone interview. “‘Hey, this is a great opportunity for us. We got to make the most of it.’ And that’s when we started working out together, getting better. And it definitely showed.”
The duo shined in Nevada last month and earned first-team recognition. Rice, 23, was the league’s leading scorer at 25 points per game on 46.9 percent shooting. Porter, 21, was not far behind, finishing tied for seventh at 19 points per contest. Both credited playing with each other for their respective standout performances.
“Otto cuts so well, coming from Georgetown, so he created a lot of attention when he did that,” Rice said in a phone interview. “And we’ve been playing together the last year so our chemistry was pretty good. They just can’t key on one person. That’s the main reason how we helped each other. I think that’s why we presented a problem in the summer league.”
The pair’s production was a positive development, but summer league success rarely translates to the regular season and expectations for them haven’t changed.
The Wizards watched their starting small forward Trevor Ariza leave for the Houston Rockets last month for a four-year, $32 million deal. Seeking salary cap flexibility and a veteran offensive weapon, the Wizards quickly — and surprisingly — inked Paul Pierce to a two-year, $11 million deal.
Pierce turns 37 in October and logged a career-low 28 minutes per game in his only campaign with the Brooklyn Nets last season, while Ariza averaged 35.4 minutes per game last year. With Chris Singleton out of the picture and backup shooting guard Martell Webster expected to miss the beginning of the season after undergoing back surgery there will be ample playing time for Porter or Rice to claim.
Porter is the favorite to seize the minutes. He was the third overall selection in the 2013 draft and considered a key piece in the franchise’s future. But the lanky 6-foot-8 Porter suffered a right hip flexor injury last summer that forced him to miss training camp and the first 20 games of the regular season. The setback derailed the Georgetown all-American’s rookie year.
“That hurt me,” said Porter, who averaged 8.6 minutes in 37 regular-season games. “So just being healthy and able to play is huge.”
Porter said he has focused on strength training this summer and noticed a difference in Las Vegas finishing at the rim. The added muscle also figures to help Porter on the defensive end and on the boards — facets of the game the Wizards projected Porter to excel at when they drafted him.
“Now that I got my first year under my belt I know 82 games is long, plus playoffs,” Porter said. “So you definitely got to maintain your body so you can last.”
Rice bounced between the Development League and the Wizards last season. He played in just 11 games for Washington, but got one start, which is one more than Porter. The 6-foot-6 Rice was also drafted last year, but not until the second round and not until he played a full season in the Developmental League, where he averaged 13 points in 42 games for Rio Grande.
“It molded me,” Rice said of the minor-league experience. “That three-point line made it an easier transition from the NBA to the D-League and the game is just so much more similar to the NBA. That was the main reason why it helped. And mentally it just helped because even in the D-League I didn’t play that much at the beginning and it just made me realize I had to just be focused in the tough times and the good times.”
Rice’s game peaked this summer alongside Porter, but when training camp opens at the end of next month they will put their summertime alliance behind them and begin competing for meaningful playing time on the wing for a team on the rise.
“The minutes are there,” Porter said. “It just matters what the coach wants. So my job is to continue to work hard and everything like that so that once that opportunity comes I can take full advantage of it.”