In a utopia, a coach would treat all players on a roster identically. In reality, coaches have always singled out individual players. It starts at youth levels and flows to professional leagues. There are hierarchies in play, different standards of treatment among athletes and their coaches. The Wizards have been no different.
It’s been an underlying issue or at least a topic of discussion with this franchise. Randy Wittman would often pull Kevin Seraphin after a mistake or series of miscues, and would usually stop him before he got to the bench to explain why he was being removed from the game. John Wall and Bradley Beal both took issue with Wittman’s refusal to critique Nene while criticizing them.
Head coach Scott Brooks he has continued that practice, at times making veiled comments towards Otto Porter, Kelly Oubre, Tomas Satoransky, and now Troy Brown Jr, while rarely making similar remarks about more established veteran players or stars.
“We want to play better. We’re not satisfied just throwing players out there and trying to make them develop. That’s part of my job, to develop them, but [another] part of my job is to develop them the right way, and we need some fortitude. We need some resolve, and we don’t need guys just going out there just thinking: ‘You know what? We’re young, and we’re just going to keep just being thrown out there.’ You got to earn [playing time].”
Nowhere in this quote is there a specific reference to Brown, but a single lineup change was made at halftime and it was Isaac Bonga starting and Brown on the bench. On one hand, young players — even in a developmental year — need to do the things the staff wants to see to stay in the lineup. On the other hand, why was Brown singled out?
I’m not here to declare right and wrong with how players should be coached. Coaching requires nuance and not each person or team can be handled the same way. Some players require additional scrutiny, others need to be given more space. It’s on the coach, in this case Brooks, to figure out what works best for that individual player given the role they’re intended to play. Sometimes there’s trial and error before a coach finds the right balance, and sometimes they never figure it out.
In Seraphin’s case, the mistakes that frustrated Wittman continued in his post-Washington career. On the flip side, Oubre looks to have turned a corner since leaving the Wizards and is playing the best basketball of his young career for the Phoenix Suns. Ironically, the Wizards are searching for options at his position, and his current style of play seems to be a good fit for what Brooks wants.
Brooks is in a difficult position because while Brown hasn’t been effective as a starter — averaging six points per game on a 44.8% true shooting percentage, singling him out for the team’s poor defensive performance exudes inconsistency. That inconsistency lies with most notably Isaiah Thomas, who has been the biggest cause of this team’s historically bad defense. It’s difficult to preach defense and accountability when the starting point guard has little interest or ability in playing defense but remains in the starting lineup and has seen his role grow larger as the season progresses.
The imperfect answer, as Nate Duncan touched on with Fred Katz, on the Wizards After Dark podcast is that Thomas won’t get better defensively. At 30 years old and coming off a major hip injury he is what he is. Criticizing a player who physically cannot play much better is pointless.
Is that fair? That’s up for debate, but out of Brown and Thomas, only one player is in the team’s long-term plans. Brooks and the coaching staff need to find the line between getting Brown to improve while not discouraging him or making him lose confidence.
That’s not to say he should either be starting, but would calling out Thomas, who has battled a lot of adversity since leaving Boston in 2017 really change the bar Brooks has set for the young core on the roster?
The challenge for Brooks and Brown is for the team and its 2018 first round pick to find the right formula and carve out a consistent role as they identify what they have. It’s fair for Brooks to keep Brown out of the starting lineup until he shows through his performance that he deserves that role, but after virtually red-shirting his rookie season, he needs to see the floor. In a developmental year, wins would be nice but the big picture hasn’t changed. It’s vital for Brooks to push the right buttons to find out what he can about Brown.
For his part, Brown seems to get it:
“Honestly, I wasn’t playing the greatest defense out there. I take a lot of pride in my defense, especially with the first unit being able to call myself a defensive stopper and guard the best players and stuff like that. Tonight, I didn’t feel like I met my expectations of playing defense and holding myself to that standard. I have to do better.”
Coaching a player hard or to different standards may not make everyone comfortable but it happens in sports. It’s happening here. Brooks however is walking a tightrope, which likely is unsustainable. He’s running the risk of losing credibility with the team by keeping a defender as bad as Thomas in the lineup while benching Brown for poor defense.
What Brooks can’t let occur is a repeat of the past, where solid players like Satoransky, a player Brooks wouldn’t give consistent playing time until Wall was injured, depart and play well in another team’s uniform. Teams in a rebuild cannot afford to make a habit of missing on solid rotation players.
Brown may not work out, and that’s life for an end-of-the-lottery pick in the NBA. He’s a good secondary ball handler and passer, and his defense has generally been acceptable. His shooting has been a notable weakness and much work still needs to be done in that area. Thus far, the 20-year old has a career true shooting percentage of 48.9 percent and is shooting an anemic 25.9 percent from the three-point line this season.
His overall lack of quickness and explosive athleticism may limit his playmaking as much as his poor shooting. That said, he’s still the NBA’s 12th youngest player and he has barely over a thousand NBA minutes on the chronometer. It is too soon to some to any conclusion about him.
The reality is that a substantial portion of a player’s development is the responsibility of the player himself. Not every prospect makes the commitment to do the work necessary to successfully transition into a quality NBA player. The concern is that Brooks’ inconsistent treatment of players could hinder Brown rather than help him. If Brown doesn’t respond to the benching with improved performance, Brooks and the coaching staff will need to reassess their approach and find another plan. The Wizards don’t want to miss out on a potential contributor because of coaching mistakes.