Isaiah Thomas was heckling a first-year player for being late — for a voluntary workout at 7 a.m.
CJ Miles was shooting three-pointers — in a walking boot.
And Bradley Beal — if anyone had an excuse to pull a veteran move and stay away, it would be him — was working as hard as a grunt on a non-guaranteed contract, not a two-time all-star sitting on a decision to take a $111 million extension.
For the new players, these moments became their introduction to Wizards basketball.
“If the best players work the hardest, everybody’s going to do the same thing and mimic that,” said Moritz Wagner, a second-year pro who was traded to Washington in June. “It’s like we want to be here, man. We want to be here together and do something. I know no one believes in us but they don’t have to. It’s kind of the mind-set. We don’t need more than we have in this gym, in this locker room."
Wizards’ Culture 2.0
After the April firing of Ernie Grunfeld, the longtime president of basketball operations who orchestrated several roster renovations but did not create a culture of consistent accountability through his 16 years, the Wizards needed to reset their environment. New general manager Tommy Sheppard despises the word “culture” — to him, it sounds like bacteria growing in a petri dish. Still, change was necessary and though his Wizards are as undefined as gobs of paint on a canvas, the team wants to create a masterpiece.
“We’ve got to change the mind-set,” Coach Scott Brooks said last month.
They want to win over fans by playing hard every night, even if they’re not winning many games. Over the past few seasons, the Wizards, justifiably, have been accused of not giving consistent effort, of having a talented collection of scorers but ones who didn’t box out, communicate loud enough or give second effort on defense. Last season, Washington ranked 27th in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions (112.9), a telling sign.
Among active players, only Beal and Ian Mahinmi have been in Washington for longer than one full season. The newbies who have been competing together for more than a month have witnessed nothing but hard work.
“The biggest focus is just changing our work habits, which will translate to winning habits and, within that, also changing characteristics and things that happen off the floor and within the organization,” rookie Admiral Schofield said. “I wasn’t here [last year], so I don’t know what’s going on, but right now, I know we’re going in the right direction.”
The Wizards also want value throughout the roster, players who have defined roles: the seventh or eighth man who exceeds his contract, the cerebral player who can come off the bench late in the game and know how to execute the right play, the trade piece who can be a better fit. But more than anything, the Wizards want to establish a sense of professionalism. Not just through coaches and staffers haranguing the millennials about showing up on time, but with veteran peers willingly showing the way.
With the potential of having eight players 22 years old or younger on the opening night roster, the Wizards need accountability.
It’s why Sheppard recently had a glint in his eye in retelling the story of Thomas playing time keeper at the front door. And it’s why Schofield was nodding along to every word of instruction delivered by Miles, a 15-year veteran who will miss the preseason after having surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left foot, as the pair stood near the top of the three-point arc after a long training camp practice.
Lessons are being imparted by the veterans, and the cells of a new culture are spreading.
“The season’s going to go quick and the bench is going shorten and Coach is going to want guys who know what he wants and get it done,” Beal said. “So, as long as we’re able to keep those good habits up of being on time, being early, getting the work in and then applying it on the court and getting it done, that’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Change at the top and all around
Sheppard has spent the past six months proving he’s not Grunfeld.
The perception that he was his former boss’s wing man might have been the biggest obstacle in Sheppard’s candidacy for the job. After all, Sheppard had worked under Grunfeld; though he was virtually unknown to average Wizards fans, anyone associated with the previous regime carried the residue of the past 16 years, when the team averaged just 37.9 wins and had recently fallen into salary cap purgatory thanks to a glut of bloated contracts.
But Sheppard began asserting his own personality almost immediately upon being named interim GM in early April.
“If you know Tommy, you know he has a lot of energy,” Mahinmi said. “He’s very enthusiastic and people are leaning that way. Very enthusiastic and very positive energy.”
Sheppard, a former public relations official with the Denver Nuggets and for three Summer Olympics, has been the antithesis to the previous decades in other ways.
According to NBA guidelines, teams must open practices to reporters for 15 minutes. In the past, the Wizards mostly showed 15 minutes of players shooting free throws, not actual practice. However, during the opening week of training camp, the Wizards have invited in the gaggle of reporters, largely consisting of Japanese media covering rookie Rui Hachimura, for long stretches of practice time that had once happened behind closed doors.
“Hey, we got nothing to hide,” Brooks said. “You guys know what we want. We want to play hard, we want to play together, we want to play with toughness. We want to get better every day. We don’t want to play with a bad spirit, and that’s what we talked about.”
The practice reveal seems like a small act. But just like the Labor Day workouts, when the entire roster filled the gym, it lays a bigger foundation of change.
“It’s transparent,” Brooks said. “We open doors."