The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Wizards’ NBA bubble stay was about growth. Troy Brown Jr. and Thomas Bryant measured up.

Troy Brown Jr., shown against Tremont Waters of the Celtics in the Wizards' season finale, showed versatility and improved leadership. (Ashley Landis/AP)

Troy Brown Jr.’s wide eyes peeked out above a white mask dotted with the red-and-white NBA logo on Wednesday afternoon during his final post-practice meeting with reporters. At that point, the 21-year-old — he had celebrated his birthday in the bubble — was used to speaking with a slightly raised voice and enunciating so media members could hear him clearly through the mask and over Zoom.

Brown had gotten many chances to work on his communication skills both in the bubble and throughout this season, it turns out — not just with reporters, but with his teammates.

“The biggest thing for me was making sure that I was checking on guys when I see them around — talking to them, asking them how they’re doing, how they feel about things,” Brown said. “Just trying to make sure they know that there’s somebody there for them, somebody they have the opportunity to talk to if they need to.”

That Washington’s 2018 first-round pick made it a priority to improve communication and embrace more of a leadership role in the bubble in Kissimmee, Fla., should be music to the Wizards’ ears as they head into the offseason.

Combined with his promising performance, Brown is a shining example of exactly what the Wizards wanted their young players to gain from the past six weeks. Washington’s Florida stay was primarily about developing players such as Brown, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant in preparation of having Bradley Beal and John Wall rejoin a fully healthy roster next season. In all, Coach Scott Brooks was happy with the progress he saw, though some young players stood out more than others.

“We grew up a little bit these last two months together,” Brooks said Thursday, the Wizards’ final day of the season.

Wizards leave NBA bubble on a winning note, wrapping up a weird, uneven season

But if Brown encapsulated the type of growth the Wizards wanted to see, Hachimura fell short.

As last year’s lottery pick and a core player around whom the Wizards want to build, the 22-year-old from Japan was the most important player in the bubble for Brooks and General Manager Tommy Sheppard. The time in Florida was a chance for Hachimura to establish himself as a leader and cement himself as the team’s most consistent scoring option outside of Beal and Davis Bertans, as he had been for most of his rookie season.

Instead, the forward faded into the background. Part of that is because he was the primary focus of scouting reports for the first time and he received some of the tougher defensive assignments of the bubble. But in averaging 14.4 points and 6.6 rebounds while shooting 40 percent, Hachimura didn’t pop like some other youngsters.

Still, Brooks liked what he saw both in the bubble and over Hachimura’s rookie year in general.

“He stepped up a lot of nights and guarded players he wasn’t used to guarding,” Brooks said. “I wanted to take advantage of this, because, if we’re going to go forward as a better team defensively, he’s going to have to be able to guard different types of players and not just the traditional power forward. But I thought he was terrific, man. He has gotten better. I’m proud of him. I love his effort, his IQ, his focus — he’s a sharp young man, but he wants to get better.”

In lieu of Hachimura, the Wizards’ bubble MVP was undoubtedly Bryant.

The center emerged as Washington’s most imposing presence in Florida and led the team with 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and two blocks per game. He shot 53.2 percent from the field and, most intriguingly, 40.5 percent on three-pointers. He attempted 4.6 three-point shots per game — three more than he did during the rest of the regular season.

Although his defense, like the team’s in general, leaves much to be desired in Bryant’s upcoming fourth year in the league, the ­23-year-old showed a force of will in the bubble. In games when the Wizards were able to set the tone, it was often Bryant leading the way with energy. He won’t have to carry that mantle when Beal and Wall are back next season, but Brooks and Sheppard were looking for a young player to step up and do so in the bubble — and Bryant deserves that credit.

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Right up there with Bryant as a player the Wizards’ front office should be pleased with is Brown, Bryant’s longtime workout partner. For him, the bubble was all about demonstrating potential.

Brown showed glimpses of a versatile game and got the chance to handle the ball more than he had previously. He averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.8 turnovers over the Wizards’ eight games, and though his 37.9 percent shooting from the field wasn’t outstanding, Brown showcased a willingness to step into new roles.

He started the final two bubble games at point guard and was shellshocked in the first, going up against league-leading Milwaukee — his least productive game in Florida — before settling in more against Boston. Throughout all eight games, Brown looked hungry.

Almost as important for the Wizards is that Brown embraced his platform in a young locker room.

“Having the opportunity of the leadership role, kind of being the guy even though I’m the youngest dude on the team — that opportunity doesn’t come very often,” Brown said. “To be able to have moments where I have to be vocal regardless of what’s going on . . . I have to communicate with my teammates and let them know and lead by example.”

Another young player who made an impact was Jerome Robinson, the 23-year-old guard Sheppard picked up from the Los Angeles Clippers just before the trade deadline in February.

In an interview last week, halfway through the Wizards’ bubble journey, Sheppard praised Robinson unprompted.

Robinson exceeded outside expectations in Florida, scoring 14.8 points per game. He came off the bench in the first six before starting in Brooks’s more experimental lineups in the final two contests, when his numbers slightly dipped. Brooks repeatedly said he wanted Robinson’s shooting percentage to climb — he finished at 42.6 percent — but the general manager took note of the overall improvement.

“One guy that’s really performed up has been Jerome,” Sheppard said. “He’s a very solid defender, can definitely get shots up and give us some pop off the bench, so that’s going to be a good thing.”

With the bubble wrapped for the Wizards, players have a few weeks off before getting back to offseason work. Each young player has a list of things to improve; Brown, for example, wants to work on his lateral quickness and three-point shooting. Everyone wants to get better at defense.

They’ll have plenty of time in the gym: No one knows exactly how long this offseason will last with the start date of the 2020-21 season up in the air. The Wizards are simply hoping to carry over the growth they felt in the bubble.

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