TOKYO — From about third through sixth grade at their school in Flint, Mich., Kyle Kuzma and Monte Morris weren’t allowed to sit together. The two boys caused too much trouble: They would lock eyes and dissolve into giggles, their laughter and troublemaking remnants of afternoons spent at each other’s houses playing video games and daydreaming about playing in the NBA.
This week, they found things aren’t so different 15 years later.
“We just had a team meeting before this just to go over certain things with our media relations team for all the new players,” Kuzma said. “. . . And he was sitting across the room, and everybody’s talking. I’m listening; I’m looking at all my teammates. And we glance at each other. And we just start laughing.”
Kuzma and Morris’s deep bond is unique on a Wizards team that features five new faces in its core rotation plus Kristaps Porzingis, the big man who before Friday’s 96-87 loss to the Golden State Warriors at Saitama Super Arena had never shared the court with Bradley Beal and Kuzma at the same time.
Every team seeks to build chemistry during the preseason. Washington has the added benefit of doing so in a foreign country, where the players dine together every day, travel on the same bus to practice and games and return to the same hotel at night — not to mention the 28 hours together on a round-trip flight.
The Wizards arguably could use the bonding time more than most.
Locker room breakdowns and miscommunication between the team’s core players and its coaching staff were largely to blame for last season’s messy devolution in the wake of a 10-3 start.
This season, the Wizards’ offense will be directed by Morris, an affable point guard whom Coach Wes Unseld Jr. called a natural connector of people. Unseld would know; he coached Morris for five seasons in Denver. They also have easygoing Taj Gibson as the locker room veteran and added role players Delon Wright and Will Barton.
Aside from Barton (lower back tightness) and Deni Avdija (left groin strain), everyone saw playing time against the Warriors as Unseld threw out different lineup combinations to get a better sense of what his rotations will look like when the regular season begins Oct. 19.
Unseld was generally pleased with his starters: Morris, Beal, Kuzma, Rui Hachimura and Porzingis. Hachimura was an obvious choice to include in the starting lineup given the venue. A rapturous, sellout crowd of 20,497 gave him the loudest ovation of the night as he and Stephen Curry addressed fans before the game with bouquets of gifted flowers in hand. Curry spoke in English and Hachimura in Japanese before the Wizards forward gifted Curry a wine bottle. The Warriors may have technically been the home team, but it was clear who played host.
Unseld and his coaching staff have been mulling the possibility Friday’s starting lineup could hold their spots even after the team returns from Hachimura’s homeland.
“It’s something that’s certainly been talked about, and we’ve tried it in small bits in practice,” Unseld said. “So just to kind of see it play out was overall positive.”
The group had some fluid-looking sequences, but the quality of play was poor overall from both teams after the extensive travel of the past few days. The Warriors shot 36.7 percent from the field and had 17 turnovers while Washington shot 36.9 percent and had 14 turnovers.
Hachimura drew praise from Beal and Unseld for his aggression after leading Washington in scoring (13 points) and rebounds (nine). Beal had nine points in his first game since he underwent surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left wrist.
“Obviously a lot to correct,” Unseld said. “I did like our process. I thought we generated some shots we were trying to generate — it was a rough shooting night for both teams, somewhat to be expected.”
As for the on-court chemistry, Beal said he was impressed with his new teammates. He highlighted Wright’s defensive prowess and Morris’s savvy facilitating while pointing out he and Porzingis are still learning each other’s preferences on court.
They’ll have more opportunity to connect in the days ahead, with charity events scheduled for Saturday afternoon, a skills competition at Saitama Super Arena later that night and a team dinner directly after Friday’s game at a location chosen by Hachimura. The teams will play Sunday and then return home.
“It’s important,” Beal said. “A lot of us don’t have family here, some do, but this is nothing but time for us to be able to spend together, build our camaraderie, build our relationships and spend way more time together. That’s all we can do: We embrace it.”