It’s all personnel-related. The team wasn’t constructed to defend at a high level. New GM Tommy Sheppard put together a roster that plays hard for each other, a team that’s exceeded expectations offensively (Washington is fourth in offensive rating), and, as a result, a team that’s usually a joy to watch.
But even with the offensive firepower, getting stops — or, at the very least being able to defend without merely relying on the opposing team missing shots — is important for more than just winning games.
All of Washington’s “core” players are 26 and under. Players like Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown, Moritz Wagner and Thomas Bryant are at a fragile stage in their respective careers, when compiling bad habits — or getting used to giving up endless amounts of field goals — could harm their development.
That’s where Gary Payton II has come in.
Payton, like a good chunk of the team’s healthy players at the moment, has spent most of his career in the NBA G-League, looking to find a permanent home after short stints with the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers.
About a week into his second shot with the Washington Wizards, Payton has already established himself as the most effective perimeter defender on the roster.
In four games, Payton racked up 16 steals — the most of any player in the league since he made his debut against the New York Knicks on Dec. 23.
In two separate games, Payton stole the ball six times — and he’s not just doing it by picking off passes. Payton is stealing the ball from traditional man-to-man defense, and it’s swung the momentum of the game for Washington multiple times.
Given how dominant he’s been defensively, calling Payton “The Mitten” is almost a pejorative. For comparison, his father, Gary Payton, “The Glove,” averaged 1.8 steals per game throughout the course of his Hall-of-Fame career.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that Payton is a better defender than his father — and the small sample size is obvious. But it does show how much of an impact he’s had in Washington in such a short period of time.
Really, what more could Payton do to earn a full-time roster spot — and perhaps a multi-year deal — than what he’s done?
Contribute on offense — and do it efficiently? Check that off the list too.
Payton is averaging a respectable 6.0 points per game and making 42.6 percent of his shots from the field this season. He cooled off since his hot start, but slumps happen. He is also averaging 3.0 assists per game, dishing at least two assists in all but one game so far.
Some players are elite defenders but there’s a considerable drop for the offense when they check into the game. Payton, at least as of now, has been the opposite. He’s shown off his athleticism by finishing shots in traffic, and his improved outside shot by making open looks from deep. He’s done everything the Wizards could’ve asked him to do, and then some.
Finding productive players on affordable contracts hasn’t been Washington’s forte — at least historically speaking. It’s always been the opposite. Now, the team has an opportunity to capitalize — to find another gem hidden in plain sight. They found productive players in Bryant, Wagner and Jordan McRae, and now they have a chance to do it again.
Teams with foresight — like the Houston Rockets, for instance — make these sort of multi-year deals with players regularly. Take Chandler Parsons’ initial NBA deal, when he made less than $1 million per season in his first three years, Danuel House and now Chris Clemons as examples. It might be somewhat head-scratching now, at least to the casual fan, but signing Payton to a legitimate NBA deal could make Sheppard and Co. look like geniuses in a few years.
It’s not often that players with an elite skill are available. Washington desperately needs defenders — if for nothing else, to stop bad habits from forming. Payton has proved to be just that — and a capable offensive player, to boot.
Every team in the league can use a player like Payton, and the Wizards were lucky enough to be the one’s to give him his first true opportunity. Hopefully, that opportunity will go beyond this season.