MIAMI — This preseason, Jason Smith has started more games as the Washington Wizards power forward than any of his teammates. The only deviation occurred Sunday when Otto Porter Jr. started at the four alongside Kelly Oubre Jr., and played limited minutes against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Mike Scott, who was signed over the summer as a backup stretch-four, has played in every exhibition game but always behind the starters.
Yes, Brooks is leaning toward one of these three to join the starting lineup for Wednesday’s regular-season opener. But no, Brooks isn’t telling.
“Well, we’re still in the thinking stages,” Brooks said, “but we got to narrow it down in a few more games.”
After Wednesday, Brooks has only one more game to evaluate the potential replacement for Markieff Morris, who is entering the third week of his six-to-eight week recovery timeline from sports hernia surgery. Washington wraps with a preseason finale Friday night against the New York Knicks. But if Wednesday’s matchup with the Miami Heat served as any indication, then Smith could be the front-runner.
Before the game, Brooks said he wanted to “give Jason another try” after sitting him Sunday. Smith took advantage, making 7 of 8 shots and drilling 4 of 5 from three-point territory to score 20 points in 22 minutes.
“He definitely was on fire,” Brooks said following the Wizards’ 117-115 loss. “Every time he touched the ball, you know he had a good feel that it was going in. Just had a good rhythm tonight. John [Wall] and the guys were finding him open looks. He’s really developed his three-point shot. Give credit to him and the staff. They worked on it last year and it’s paying off. It’s paying off and we need his three-point shooting.”
Smith’s statistical line proved plenty: If it’s a floor-spacing, knockdown big man the Wizards want, then he could hold down the position until Morris comes back. But Smith’s third start in four games did little to convince him that he’s the sole owner of the starting four spot.
“Just trying to work hard everyday at practice. If it’s me, if it’s Mike, if it’s Kelly — it’s going to be different things, different nights obviously with different lineups and different teams,” Smith said. “For me, I just got to stay ready no matter what. Stay on my toes and continue to work hard at practice.”
Though Smith has spent the time to craft his outside shot, he remains at a deficit as a 7-footer in trying to defend smaller, faster players. For the third quarter, Miami made a switch to start 6-8 Jordan Mickey at the four. Then, Mickey stepped aside for 6-9 James Johnson, who had no problem getting past Smith and scoring eight points in a little less than seven minutes on the court.
Even if the Wizards pick Smith for opening night against the Philadelphia 76ers, these stretch-four matchup dilemmas can be counteracted with a move to the bench. Now into Brooks’s second season, the team has committed to adaptability of lineups, easily switching from a frontcourt dominated by true centers to a small lineup. The Wizards did so for a few minutes near the end of the first half as Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat formed a unit with forwards Scott and Oubre.
Overall, Smith provided solid minutes and the team finished a plus-3 while he was on the court. The season-opening choice could be Smith — but then again, Brooks could be withholding his final lineup to throw off Philadelphia.
“I’m confident with whoever we start,” Brooks said, “we’re going to need everyone to play well.”