For some time, Washington, D.C. was where young professional basketball players went to decompose.
When other teams focused on developing players by utilizing their strengths and gradually working on correcting their weaknesses, the Washington Wizards – under the leadership of Randy Wittman – were partial to older players entering the final stages of their careers.
But over the past several seasons, the team’s philosophy on player development has changed because of the guidance and patience exuded by Scott Brooks. The progression of Otto Porter and, to a lesser extent, Kelly Oubre, are prime examples of the seismic cultural shift the team has undergone and how the implementation of Brooks’ tactics has resulted in tangible growth.
Otto Porter’s confidence expands – and so does his game
Otto Porter was already at a disadvantage during his inaugural NBA season after missing the first 18 games of his rookie year with injury. When he finally made his debut against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 6, 2013, Porter – looking more like a rookie than any rookie in the history of the league – was nervous, just as any other 20-year-old would be.
Instead of instilling confidence in Porter, stressing the positives – his off-ball movement, deflections and willingness to crash the glass – Wittman yanked him out of the rotation, playing Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster, Rasual Butler and, at times, Chris Singleton in front of Porter.
It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. D.C. was a wasteland for tainted talent that was never properly honed.
As a third overall pick, Porter might’ve expected different treatment – a longer leash, allowing him to work through growing pains on the court. Wittman was shortsighted, as he’d been with countless young players prior. If players didn’t immediately perform, they were pulled from the court and relegated to Wittman’s doghouse, where their potential rotted and careers ultimately died.
Porter eventually cracked the rotation and stayed there, somewhat because Wittman didn’t have veterans to lean on. Once Paul Pierce bounced from the nation’s capital, Porter became the team’s starter and would remain that way.
While he did show promise, especially in the 2015 NBA Playoffs, Porter was still timid, occasionally passing on open looks and lacking true purpose on the court. He was merely another player on the floor – not someone worthy of a $106 million contract, which he earned under the tutelage of Brooks.
Porter’s disposition has been altered and his game has been, too.
Washington’s coaching staff no longer alienates Porter’s weaknesses when assessing his value, but rather highlights his strengths, and it’s led to a breakout season. Recognizing the skillsets of the playmaking players, the coaches put the supporting cast in positions where their talents are employed at the highest capacity.
Porter, a weak ball handler and shot creator, became a highly-effective 3-point threat last season, shooting 43.4 percent from three, which was good for top five in the league. The coaches emphasized spacing and Porter, who shot just 2.6 threes per-36 minutes in his second year, was taking almost 5 threes per-36 minutes in his fourth season. Porter understood his specialized role, did it well and continued to patch the holes in his game.
This season, at least through five games, Porter seems to have improved the aspects he lacked, and his play has reflected the return on the investment Washington made by going all-in on internal player development.
Porter is averaging 19.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 2.8 steals (leading the league) on 51.9 percent shooting – all career highs across the board.
The hesitancy he once played with has morphed into self-belief. Now, Porter has no issue with taking a wide open – or, for that matter, a contested – three in the half-court. He’ll let the opposing team know about it, too, by running back on defense and clapping as the opposing team brings the ball up.
Mid-range? That’s automatic. The uncertainty that Porter had inside the 3-point arc is gone and it’s evident in how he’s shooting 56 percent in that range (again, it’s a small sample size). More importantly, he plays with a readiness to take the shot; Porter regularly rises above defenders and hits fade-away jumpers from outside the paint. He’s quietly become an efficient, instant bucket who’s deserving of more than just a couple of sentences on a scouting report.
Kelly Oubre is quickly realizing his potential
Porter entered the league with an NBA ready skillset, but was short of the mindset. Kelly Oubre was the opposite, full of swag and bravado, but was missing the skillset.
Oubre’s single season under Wittman wasn’t much different than Porter’s. He also made his debut against the Milwaukee Bucks, playing an uneventful 66 seconds. He’d go on to play roughly 10 minutes per game, slotted behind Porter, Jared Dudley, Gary Neal and Garrett Temple. Washington wasn’t competing for a championship in 2015 and failed to qualify for the playoffs, which raises the question: if the team isn’t winning, shouldn’t playing time be spent developing young players and not wasted on veterans with one-year contracts (all of whom weren’t retained)?
Brooks doubled Oubre’s playing time last season and, again, accentuated the good in his game – his relentless defense, athleticism on the break and rebounding. This off-season, he expanded his game by focusing on his 3-point shooting and ball handling, and it’s paying off.
Oubre is averaging 12.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and is hitting 43.5 percent of his threes after making just 29 percent last year. His defense – the part of his game that was always ahead of his peers’ – has become more polished. Oubre is averaging 1.2 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.
If playing with confidence was enough, Oubre would be a Hall-of-Fame player already, but now his game is starting to catch up. Oubre, like Porter did last year, has become a knock-down shooter from the corner three, making half of his attempts. Half of the shots he’s taken have been from deep this season, which means Oubre isn’t doing more than he should – he’s kept it simple, accepted his role and found his ever-growing wave.
The days of watching young basketball players decay in D.C. are over. Brooks ushered in the change and the blossoming wingmen are thriving as a result of his commitment to internal player development.