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20 Days, 20 Questions: The three restricted free agents

With the first day of Wizards training camp coming, Bullets Forever is asking 20 questions about key issues with the team in 2010/11. 

It may seem odd to begin this series with a question that looks ahead, but as any good organization will tell you, it's important to always keep one eye on the future.  In the next 10 months, the Wizards will have to make a decision about whether to include three young-ish players in their future.  

Nick Young, Al Thornton and Yi Jianlian were all a part of the 2007 draft class.  The Wizards could elect to give any of them a contract extension by October 31, or they could let them play out the season and have them become restricted free agents next summer.  Alternatively, if they play poorly enough, they can simply renounce their rights and cast them loose after the season, like they did with Randy Foye this summer.  Sometime in the next 11 months, the Wizards will have to make those key judgment calls.

Therefore, here's question 20.

What do Young, Thornton and Yi need to do to be retained after the season? 

We've talked about Yi a lot recently because of his play in FIBA, so I won't say too much about him.  He certainly needs to improve his rebounding and defense, and it's also key for him to show the same kind of offensive efficiency -- both in terms of shooting efficiency and his ability to be engaged when he doesn't have the ball -- that he showed out in Turkey.  If he does all that, which will be a challenge even after his strong FIBA play, he would probably cement his place in the Wizards' future. His style certainly fits in with the kind of perimeter-oriented big men Flip Saunders likes to have.

So let's talk about Young and Thornton.  Both players have played for this organization already, so we have a little bit more to stand on than with Yi.  However, that sample is pretty small.  Thornton has only played 24 games with the Wizards, and the new incarnation of Young (discussed here) has only been here for one season.  If everyone on the team is healthy, both players will be coming off the bench this season, so they will have to make the most of the few chances they get to show their worth.  

As we've talked about before, Young was a much different player last season.  He did a lot more shooting off the pass rather than off the dribble.  He also took more three-pointers than before, and frankly, did a lot less dunking and high flying.  For the second straight year, the Wizards somehow were a much better team in terms of point differential/100 possessions with him on the court than with him off it, indicating his defense also improved.  And yet, his production really tumbled from his more promising 2008/09 season.  An optimist (like myself) would say Young was being broken down to later be built back up, but before he can be built back up, he needs to be even more consistent from possession to possession.  Considering Young's slow path in the NBA thus far, it's just as likely that he can't do those things than he can. 

It's also unclear where Young fits into the rotation now that the Wizards have two players -- Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich -- who play his position.  Last season, Young's strengths compared to the other wings on the roster were his shooting and his athleticism, at least with potentially stopping the opposing teams' top perimeter threats.  But Hinrich and Arenas both offer better perimeter shooting, and Hinrich, even at his age, is probably a superior defender.  Sure, Hinrich (and maybe Arenas) won't be around for the whole rebuild, but if they're doing what Young currently does better, you have to wonder how Young will get enough time to prove himself.

As for Thornton, he has a leg up on Young simply because the small forward position is pretty wide open.  Josh Howard is also on a one-year contract, and it's hard to believe the Wizards will want him after the season.  Thornton certainly impressed the coaching staff last season with his aggressive play, and he's vowed to come into camp in better shape than he was in last season.  You would think that, if forced to choose between keeping Young and Thornton, the Wizards would choose Thornton.

The problem Thornton faces is that there may not be a ton of room for him to dramatically improve his game.  His jump shot is awkward, and I doubt he'll be able to radically change his form at this point.  He certainly needs to get better with the more mental areas of the game -- off-ball defense, pick and roll defense and cutting -- but those are often the toughest areas to improve from year to year.  To his credit, Thornton rebounded well for his position in his 24-game stint in D.C., and his usage rate dropped to a more manageable figure considering his scoring efficiency, but he'll have to keep those trends up for more than 24 games for me to fully jump on board.

We also have to consider that there exists a chance that all three could play well and the Wizards could still pull the plug.  If the Wizards renounce all three after the season, they will enter the 2011 summer with only $42 million in committed salary, which could be enough to make a play for a maximum free agent depending on what happens with the CBA.  It can be problematic to give long-term deals to role players even if they play well, which is what Thornton, Yi and Young all projected to be with this team.  

Regardless, we know one thing: this is a huge season for Young, Thornton and Yi.  All three players are playing for a spot in the Wizards' future.