When the Wizards finally take the court against the Phoenix Suns for their first regular season game since March 10, they will do so against one of the biggest scoring threats in the league in Devin Booker. The Suns guard, whose 26.1 points per game were 10th most in the NBA this season, should give ample opportunity for Washington to work on its defense, one of the team’s top priorities in Florida.
Defense, of course, is just one of the targets the Wizards are eyeing in the bubble, which they consider to be one grand opportunity to develop their young players.
With Beal at home with a right rotator cuff injury and Bertans having opted out of the season ahead of free agency, progressing players such as Troy Brown Jr., Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura is paramount as Washington looks ahead to a 2020-21 season with a healthy Beal and John Wall together again. The team wants to make a playoff run, but the road ahead is gnarly — the Wizards (24-40) sit 5½ games behind the eighth-place Orlando Magic and must get within four games to force a play-in tournament to qualify for the postseason.
That makes development the name of the game for the Wizards’ eight scheduled games in Florida.
“When we found out, we were really excited,” Coach Scott Brooks said of discovering the Wizards would be one of 22 teams invited to the bubble. “We knew we’d have a couple of months of really a lot of good work we can put in and get better as a group. A lot of our guys need it."
Brooks wants to focus on communication to help improve the team’s league-worst defensive rating (they allow 116.5 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com).
The players he is working with in Florida aren’t the team’s usual leaders — they’re less experienced and therefore less likely to speak up on court. Brooks has called the group soft-spoken many times in his regular virtual news conferences with reporters, but he is hoping all of the Zoom training the team did during the lockdown helped make guys more comfortable talking.
Brown, who started at guard in two of the three exhibition games the Wizards played in Florida, said Thursday the team does feel more of a camaraderie he hopes translates on the court.
“When you are all kind of going through the same struggle and going through the same stuff, it definitely brings a certain type of bond,” said Brown, who celebrated his 21st birthday Tuesday. “With that, communication is a lot easier because you’re able to hold somebody else accountable when you know them.”
Point guard Ish Smith, one of just four Wizards players in the bubble who has played more than two years in the league, said the root of the team’s defensive communication issues lies in a familiarity with the pro game.
Brooks tried to address that during the league’s hiatus. He had his players watch the team’s 2017 playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks so they could get an idea of what the team played like with Wall and Beal in tiptop shape and so they could get a sense of the physicality and speed the Wizards want to play with.
“It’s knowing the actions. That’s the biggest thing, being familiar with it,” Smith said of the team’s defensive issues nowadays. “So once we can grow familiarity with the actions and how things are going, that’s going to allow us to better communicate and know where to be in the right spot, where to tell people to be in the right spot."
As for dealing with the Suns, Brooks said Brown and forwards Isaac Bonga and Admiral Schofield will have a crack at defending Booker. Phoenix’s offense is middling, but the Suns play with a pace — 101.76 possessions per game, ninth most in the league — that tripped up the Wizards in their final exhibition.
“We’ve been trying to figure that out the last 10 days, how we’re going to guard that young man,” Brooks said Thursday. “He is one of the best scorers in the league — not quite sure why he’s not an all-star the last couple of years the way he’s been playing, but he’s a problem. We’re going to have to do it by committee.”
That’s how the Wizards expect most things to happen in the Florida bubble when this young squad tips off Friday — by committee. The team hopes Hachimura and Brown take significant steps forward, to be sure. But without their two centerpieces from the bulk of the regular season, with little pressure and even lower outside expectations to make the playoffs, Washington’s NBA restart will be all about getting better, together.
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