Bryant, in the middle of one of his best games of the season, had to take a seat because Brooks wanted him to roll to the rim instead of shooting and missing a 28-footer just a moment before the Hornets’ second waltz into the lane. Although the substitution might have seemed strange in the moment, it served a purpose.
This season, Brooks has the most inexperienced team of his time with the Wizards. Gray may pop up in his dirty blond hair and frown lines may tighten his face, but Brooks will continue doling out a lesson to his young players: Every minute must be earned.
“There’s nobody entitled,” he said after the 125-118 win.
In Friday’s fourth quarter, the two other pieces of the Wizards’ starting frontcourt — rookie Rui Hachimura, the No. 9 draft pick, and 20-year-old forward Troy Brown Jr. — remained seated during the fourth quarter, along with veteran point guard Isaiah Thomas. Only Bryant, who re-signed over the summer for three years and $25 million, and Bradley Beal represented the starters as the team recovered from a 13-point deficit.
“We have a lot of pieces that can be in there at the same time,” said Bryant, who finished with 21 points, 11 rebounds and a team-best plus-21 rating. “We try to build chemistry day in and day out with practice. No matter who’s in the game toward the end, you try to have that trust and develop that talk on the defensive end with each other.”
Brooks’s closers, the players who perform in the final 12 minutes, have varied. This season, backup forward Davis Bertans leads all players in fourth-quarter minutes at 10.6 per game, followed by Beal’s 8.8. It’s no coincidence that Ish Smith, who has received the third-most minutes, also belongs in the roster’s 25-or-older club.
“You can only play nine or 10 guys, and you can only play five guys at time, and I understand that. It’s hard,” Brooks said. “You got to be strong and have convictions and reasons and the things that are important to you. We have some areas we know we have to develop and get better. My job is to teach.”
Brooks has given scattered closing minutes to three of the players who are 22 or younger: Bryant (6.7 minutes in the fourth quarter), Hachimura (6.5) and Brown (4.5).
Everyone not named Bradley Beal will have to earn every second on the floor in the fourth quarter. This is especially true for the team’s youngest players — no matter if you’re a high draft pick or a highly paid starting center.
“Brad’s earned it. Let’s face it: He’s earned his opportunities,” Brooks said. “Believe in Brad and his ability, but the minutes are there for whoever wants them at the end of the game. Mo had them the last night. T.B. had them tonight. Ish had them the last couple of games. I.T. had them a couple games before that.”
From the beginning of the season, Brooks has told anyone willing to listen that certain roles will be fluid. Although it might have sounded like a hollow threat — just something a coach would say to promote competition in training camp — Brooks wasn’t joking.
A month into the season, he has already dropped a former starter (Isaac Bonga) completely out of the rotation, sidelined his replacement (Brown) in many fourth quarters and recently admitted to pulling the summer’s biggest free agent signing (Bryant) for not executing fundamental tenets of big-man basketball.
“I took him out because he didn’t roll. He didn’t roll, he didn’t roll,” Brooks said, explaining his decision in the second quarter. “He has opportunities to roll. The league is open. The lane is open. There’s nobody knocking each other on the butt like they used to do. There was a bruise every time you go through a lane, and you try to get through it as quick as you can. But now you can stand there all night long and there’s no one going to [hit you]. There’s no meanies in there anymore.”
During his nine-minute stretch in the fourth, Bryant did in fact roll, and he picked up two assisted dunks that pulled the Wizards within a point. After Bryant’s dunks, Jordan McRae, benefiting from the defense being on high alert for more inside action, hit the corner three-pointer that gave Washington the lead with 3:02 remaining.
After the win, Brooks pointed to Bryant’s solid game. Although he repeated criticism about Bryant not rolling enough early on, Brooks rewarded his center when it mattered — in the fourth quarter.
“They drive me crazy, but I love it,” Brooks said of his younger players. “I love that they drive me crazy with enthusiasm.”