The Washington Wizards present an interesting dilemma coming into this season. Offseason moves kept the young team mostly status quo until the massive trade swapping John Wall for Russell Westbrook which occurred just as training camp began. Now, it seems the team is even further committed to pushing for a playoff position this year, not only to appease franchise player Bradley Beal, but also to maximize the (most likely) best chance at a near-prime performance from Westbrook in his age 32 season as he comes in healthy after an all-NBA campaign.
Both players will be expecting that the team pulls out all of the stops to gain the best playoff seed possible for this year. They expect to show out in a playoff environment. We should be excited to see Beal back on a more competitive team, and to see how much of a difference Westbrook makes when compared to previous starting point guards Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas and Shabazz Napier.
The Wizards brass, mainly General Manager Tommy Sheppard, have backed up the playoff-push mantra with their words. He spoke of a faster start with Westbrook and has long been preaching patience leading up to this year and terming this iteration of the team as a retool instead of a rebuild.
On the other hand, the team employs seven players aged 23 or younger and most project to be at the least, in competition for rotation minutes. Decisions have been made to continue prioritizing the development of said young players, with Sheppard openly telling the media that prospective free agents were informed that Thomas Bryant is the projected starter at center, and how outside of drafting 19-year old Deni Avdija, the Wizards didn’t address a gaping hole at the wing.
Some see those decisions as missed opportunities. Could the team have found a youngish center to pair with and to push Bryant? Should the team have added a player at the wing who would’ve been better for a team with a higher playoff seed in mind? Many would say Nerlens Noel and either Mo Harkless or Glenn Robinson III were players in the free agent market that merited consideration. Another group of fans has more faith in the abilities for the young group to step up and seize rotation spots.
I’m of the latter mindset and think it’s a good call to allow the existing players to sink or swim with their performances for a team that has higher expectations and pressure. In this piece we’ll take a look at four of those players who are in interesting positions going into year three of their careers. Each of them are in different stages of make-or-break scenarios due to contractual questions coming up. It’s imperative for the team to know what it has in these players so that it can make informed decisions on whether or not they help the Wizards with the aforementioned goals of maximizing this team’s potential for this year.
The Wizards must decide by December 29th, only six days into the season, whether to pick up a $5.34M team option on Robinson for the 2021-2022 season. Robinson was viewed by the majority as a draft reach at pick 13 for the LA Clippers in 2018, and what he’s shown in the NBA through two seasons has kept the jury out.
Robinson has shown to be okay as a defender in the league, but not much of anything else transferred over from his days at Boston College. The 3-point shot, a supposed strength, has been a weakness. He’s at 31.9% for his career and was at 34.9% for the Wizards in 21 games. For a player that infrequently makes plays for others, doesn’t rebound too well, and lacks size to guard a lot of wings, that level of shooting won’t cut it. The team has taken the stance, publicly, that these struggles have been due to confidence for the most part.
He has been included with the group of players who are competing to start at the small forward spot on opening night, December 23rd. I’d guess he’s behind at least Isaac Bonga currently in that competition, and it’s fair to think that Deni Avdija and Troy Brown Jr. provide better fits as players being asked to defend true wings/forwards and to provide appropriate rebounding from that position. If we see this Jerome Robinson from college more I think that he can establish himself either as a starter or key reserve. Either way, it’s a huge season for him and he does seemingly have fans in Scott Brooks and Tommy Sheppard. Guaranteeing over $5M for next year in just a few weeks to a player who’s shown as little as he has over two full seasons seems like a stretch. Robinson has a lot to prove if he wants to stick with the Wizards and also in the NBA.
Wagner has been all over the place so far as a Wizard. He filled a need at backup center last year to start the season and opened eyes with his shooting and offensive play. His defense was not helping matters, and his fouling tendencies are incomprehensible, but he looked like a worthy investment averaging 12 & 6 last November while shooting 41% from 3. Then he hurt his ankle, and stopped shooting threes entirely after returning, and did not continue on an upward trajectory. He showed that he can finish well in the paint, but he was uninspiring after coming back from a high ankle sprain.
Much like with Robinson, the team must decide by December 29th whether to pick up a $3.89M option for the 2021-2022 season. After shooting 37% (15% from 3) and playing just 16 minutes per game in the bubble, the team didn’t seem too enthused with Wagner’s play. Now, he goes into year three as a long shot to earn rotation minutes over Robin Lopez and he faces many questions about what he is as a player on both ends of the floor. With Rui Hachimura & Anthony Gill onboard as players who can play small-ball center, Wagner could be a player that struggles to see the floor at all unless injuries and or COVID-19 come into play. The price to pick up his option for next season isn’t that significant, but it seems that Wagner is really in need of a strong training camp to earn a rotation spot and/or a guaranteed deal with the Wizards for next year. Unfortunately, it seems like the odds are against either happening.
Bonga is like the others on this list with a tenuous rotation spot, but is unlike the rest because he is extension-eligible and a restricted free agent at year’s end. He’s the youngest of these four and he showed last year that he’s one of the few on this roster who is capable of defending at a potentially high level if we assume more growth occurs with his defensive play.
He was making headlines in practice going into the bubble and showed flashes at various points throughout last season. Advanced stats have been kind to him on both ends. One would think he’s the most conventional “3 and D” on this roster, but the 3 part of that equation is lacking. He shot 18% on 3 pointers in the bubble and while he connected on 35% for the year, he was only attempting those types of shots (and all shots) infrequently. It’s imperative that he shows a quicker and more reliable shot to stay on the court this year. With Westbrook now on the team and seemingly a lot of mouths to feed on offense, Bonga could be a clean fit with his versatility on defense and unselfish, intelligent play. Is he ready to seize the small forward role and start a majority of games for the second year in a row? It’s a tough call but if I were to guess he is the favorite to do it and Bonga could be a long-term player in D.C. That said, he’s now in year three and he has a long way to go to be viewed by the rest of the league as a starter-worthy player.
Troy Brown Jr
Brown Jr. represents quite a challenge with the current makeup on this roster. When considering that Beal and Westbrook are options 1 & 2 offensively, the opportunities for Troy to fill a role as a secondary playmaker on the perimeter will be limited. Brown Jr. rebounds well, but he didn’t step up well defensively against bigger wings last year and it seems that after a flirtation with running him as a point guard in the bubble, the additions of Cassius Winston and Raul Neto to pair with Westbrook and Smith shows the Wizards are not planning on that role continuing for him.
Last season, his numbers were much better when playing as a reserve. Brooks has talked about him competing to start at the 3 but Brown talked last year about feeling comfortable in a bench role and he seems to prefer the ball in his hands to take advantage of his pick & roll and passing ability. That role is more likely off the bench, and not next to ball dominant players like Westbrook and Beal. Brown Jr. handling the ball with the starters is even less likely when we consider that he’d likely be behind Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura in the pecking order too. The defensive concerns further lead me to think he’ll be coming off of the bench again, and it remains to be seen how the other options (Avdija, Robinson, Bonga) could cut into his playing time at that.
One would think that picking up his fourth year option is a foregone conclusion. He has shown positives, particularly in the bubble despite continued inconsistencies playing an off-ball role and with the willingness and accuracy of his outside shot. If he struggles to start the year, he does have fans throughout the league (hello John Hollinger) and he likely would be the Wizards most obvious trade piece to acquire a player who presents a better fit. Brown Jr. comes off as a hard worker, he fits with the team personality-wise, and is still very young. However, if he doesn’t prove that he is a positive contributor on a playoff-level team prior to the trade deadline, I expect he’ll be moved.
As part of this discussion I didn’t include Thomas Bryant who’s already under contract, Deni Avdija who has a full rookie contract, or Rui Hachimura who also is only beginning year two. They represent additional variables as players who the Wizards need to contribute this year, but the urgency of a deadline with a contractual decision coming up is not there to the same extent as it is for the four 3rd year contributors. Overall, the Wizards season will likely hinge on the young players advancing as NBA players, and this group will be crucial to this season and to the direction the Wizards go moving forward.