Through a preseason devoid of drama, suddenly the Washington Wizards have the makings of true competition.
The Wizards entered training camp with 19 players — 13 on the roster with guaranteed money, then Sheldon Mac and Daniel Ochefu with partially guaranteed deals, rookies Michael Young and Devin Robinson on two-way NBA G League contracts and, finally, Donald Sloan and Carrick Felix signed as free agents to try to make the team. The crowded court did not favor the training camp invitees, as Sloan and Felix most likely would have been the easiest players to cut as the Wizards looked to set the roster at 15 (as two-way players, Young and Robinson do not count against the salary cap nor the team’s NBA roster).
However, a few unfortunate breaks for other players have sparked new life for Sloan and Felix.
On Tuesday, Mac underwent surgery to repair a torn Achilles’ tendon. The recovery timeline will likely end his season and thereby ensure that his salary becomes the 14th guaranteed contract. Earlier in the week, the team waived Ochefu. The move cleared the way for one player to earn the 15th and final roster spot.
“It’s going to be Carrick or Donald,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “This is one of the toughest years that I will have in making a cut.”
Each player has a reasonable case to make the team. Felix, the 27-year-old whose early career was derailed by a severe injury, has impressed with his defensive energy and bursts of athleticism. He’s 6-foot-6 and fits the prototype of what the Wizards seek in a player: a guard/forward who can play and defend multiple positions. This preseason, Felix ranks second on the team in scoring at 9.7 points per game, just behind Bradley Beal (10.0). And despite breaking his kneecap in 2014, Felix has not lost his lift, showing off with in-game dunks that get his teammates out of their seats.
“All I can ask for is everyday just come out here and keep doing the same thing,” Felix said about his chances of making the final roster, “and whatever happens, happens.”
Even before the last spot opened, Sloan, a 29-year-old point guard, received an extended look from Wizards coaches. Backup point guard Tim Frazier’s groin injury early in training camp caused him to miss the first three exhibition games and several practices, and Sloan has looked steady as his replacement.
In the team’s preseason opener against a Chinese Basketball Association team, Sloan, who spent last season in China, had seven assists against only one turnover. But on Sunday night against the Cavaliers, Sloan wasn’t nearly as tidy through his 28:34 on the court, producing three assists and five turnovers while shooting 5 for 14 from the field.
Even so, the new developments in Washington have rewarded Sloan’s decision not to return overseas this season. Sloan believes he can play as the team’s third point guard behind John Wall and Frazier, especially if Tomas Satoransky swings between the one and two spots.
“I think this is a good fit here,” Sloan said earlier this month. “I understand there are a lot of guys here on guaranteed money already, but it’s those guys that you don’t expect that sneak and get you.”
The timing of Mac’s injury and Ochefu’s release all but secures a fair shot for either Felix or Sloan. With one week remaining in the preseason, Brooks said the team has no plans to bring in a new free agent to compete for the spot.
“Ernie [Grunfeld], the staff, we haven’t talked about that . . . we have everything here that we need,” Brooks said. “Even with Sheldon’s injury, we feel like we can cover our bases with the remaining guys and we’ve got players who can play multiple positions. That’s what the league is about now — guys playing different spots on the floor so you can play a lot of small lineups, and we have that.
“We like what we have here. We like our team. We like the guys who are trying to make it,” Brooks continued. “Everybody gave us a lot of good minutes and put themselves in a position where it is tough. There’s been times throughout the years where I’ve been a head coach, the decisions are pretty much [expected] — the players cut themselves. But these guys have not cut themselves. They’ve been good, and it’s going to be tough.”