Before Scott Brooks opens his first training camp as the Washington Wizards‘ head coach, he’s still unsure of the status of his all-star point guard.
During a lunch with Washington Post editors and reporters on Wednesday, Brooks addressed a wide range of topics including John Wall’s health. When asked if Wall would be available for the Wizards’ first training camp practice, Tuesday on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Brooks expressed uncertainty, though he didn’t appear too concerned at this point.
“Don’t know that but he’s doing some one-on-one, he’s doing some three-on-three. Not really worried about that,” Brooks said. “Like all of our athletes, I want them to be ready but he’s definitely moving towards that direction.”
Before arriving for his meeting at The Post, Brooks said he had watched Wall that morning in a workout. Wall, who had two knee operations this offseason, has progressed from playing against younger assistant coaches to facing off against teammates, going one-on-one for roughly 25 minutes. In spite of the improvement, Brooks hesitated to provide a date when Wall will be cleared for five-on-five contact.
“I don’t like to put a timetable [on it] because if he doesn’t meet it [then] we’re saying, ‘Oh, he’s still hurt,’ ” Brooks said. “He’s improving. His body looks great [but] his conditioning is going to be behind.
“Once you step into an NBA practice, the level goes way up,” Brooks continued. “Especially in a training camp situation where you have guys trying to make it, guys trying to fight for minutes, trying to fight for starting jobs, but we have to make sure [about Wall] because that’s when things can go sideways. I saw him this morning for an hour, he looked great, but I don’t know -– we’ll find out soon.”
Since becoming the Wizards coach, Brooks has repeatedly raved about Wall’s still-untapped potential. During his April introductory news conference, Brooks predicted that Wall still has “two or three levels” he can reach. On Wednesday, Brooks pinpointed specific areas where his three-time all-star and franchise player can make the biggest leaps.
“I think he should be a high free-throw” shooter, Brooks said, then tossed out a range of seven to 10 free throw attempts per game. “He has the ability. He has the strength, he has the shot-making, the athleticism to get to the rim.
“My job is to challenge him to get up to another level. That’s the challenge and that’s also the fun part of my job to see where I can take him and the team. The better players in the league get easy points at the free throw line and I think he can be a low-to-mid-80s [percentage] free throw shooter also.”
Last season, Wall attempted 4.5 free throws per game, the fewest in his career (in 2014-15, Wall’s average was 4.6). Upon hearing the suggestion that Wall believes he should get to the line more but has not been rewarded by officials, Brooks quipped: “For five years I disagreed with him. Now, I agree.”
Besides Wall’s rehabilitation and potential to elevate his game, another topic of intrigue: Will there be a battle for the starting small forward position?
Though Washington appears set in four of the five starting positions, the three-spot does not look as locked up as the incumbent Otto Porter Jr. and second-year player Kelly Oubre Jr. could both be candidates for the job.
“Definitely it’s going to be healthy competition” at small forward, Brooks said. “We also have some younger players who are coming into camp. I’d like both of them to take a step in the right direction and they should.”
During his rookie season, Oubre appeared in 63 games for short spells, averaging just more than 10 minutes. While Oubre has potential — a lanky 6-foot-7 wing who could be a lock-down defender — he’s also remarkably raw at the start of his NBA career. Oubre averaged a shaky shooting percentage overall (42.7) while Porter, who is entering his fourth year, shot 36.7 percent from behind the three-point arc last season.
“I’ve been around Kelly quite a bit this summer and summer league. He’s improved, but he is 20,” Brooks said. “I don’t use that as an excuse. I tell the players on Day One, ‘Hey, you’re all NBA players.’ … I think both of them have a chance to be good.”
The Wizards have invited 18 players to training camp, with 12 guaranteed contracts as well as four players on partial deals (Jarrell Eddie, Danuel House, Sheldon McClellan and Daniel Ochefu). Inevitably, the roster will be trimmed and Brooks expects the team to open the season with 14 or 15 players.
“There’s a couple spots open,” Brooks said.
Brooks’s vision for the 2016-17 season seems just as open. In his first season in Washington with a team that failed to make the postseason last year, Brooks views progress as a fluid idea with no rigid definitions.
“Next week will be the first time I address the team as a whole. I’m just looking forward to training camp and see how much we can improve,” Brooks said. “All the good teams and the teams I’ve coached every month we’ve improved, so we want to do that. … We’ll talk about winning the championship early and that’s it. When you talk about it, it does nothing. You have to do action and not skip any steps and work every day, build your habits, focus on every day work and see where it takes you.”