“We’re gonna improve defensively, and a lot of that is by repetition and continuity,” said Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard in a recent interview with The Athletic. “We certainly look inside. Maybe we can get more physicality there and get some more help out on the wings.”
Sheppard talked up the need for continuity and how he expects most of their defensive improvement to come from players getting extended opportunities to play together. Based on that, I wouldn’t expect a major overhaul from a personnel perspective. That being said, drafting a player with defensive potential, especially a big-man, seems reasonable.
“I think we need a rim protector,” said Sheppard. “I think that helps a lot defensively to keep people out of the paint.”
Since the Wizards are somewhat financially constrained, especially if they intend to keep Davis Bertans, it seems even more likely that they would attempt to address this need through the draft. Accordingly, here are some players they could target that fit that bill.
James Wiseman (Memphis) – Wiseman, an athletic 7-footer with a 7-7 wingspan, is one of the more widely discussed prospects in this year’s draft. His length, quickness and bounce are things teams want in a rim-protector. He will need to continue to get stronger for NBA competition. His physical gifts ensure he will be at least a good weak-side shot-blocker.
There were questions about his motor coming out of high school but I think that speaks more to his level of competition than his drive. In a limited sample size in college, Wiseman looked like an NBA center. Offensively, he seems guaranteed to make an impact as a finisher around the rim, and he’s likely to make a good lob partner for John Wall. To unlock his full potential, Wiseman will need to continue to work on his shooting range. To this point, he has shown modest flashes of touch from mid-range.
If Wiseman can shoot it just well enough to make people respect him from the perimeter, he becomes more dangerous playing next to Wall. The threat of Brook Lopez as a three-point shooting center has opened up driving lanes in Milwaukee. Lopez was shooting only 36-percent from behind the arc but people talked about him like he was Ray Allen. That’s because that level of shooting from the center position is more than enough to keep defenses honest. Hassan Whiteside with shooting potential seems like a realistic comparison for Wiseman.
Onyeka Okongwu (USC) – The freshman center out of USC is the next highly regarded prospect in the draft who could add shot-blocking for the Wizards. Okongwu is smaller than Wiseman at 6-foot-9, but is strong and explosive. What Wiseman does with length, Okongwu does with impressive physicality.
Being smaller might actually be a benefit for Okongwu, who has shown the ability to switch onto perimeter players and not get exploited. Of any major center prospect in the draft, he offers the best balance of elite rim-protection potential and the ability to defend in space away from the basket. Okongwu averaged 2.7 blocks this year and also showed active hands with 1.2 steals. The strength to hold up against bigger centers, the explosiveness to block shots, and the mobility to stay in front of quicker opponents make Okongwu the complete package defensively.
Offensively, Okongwu is still a work in progress like Wiseman. He has also shown some flashes of shooting touch and draft experts seem to believe in his ability to improve in that area. Okongwu’s strength and athleticism allowed him to be an elite finisher around the rim at the college level. Based on his tools, that seems likely to carry over to the NBA. There have been comparisons to Bam Adebayo but I think this applies more to size and body type than skillset. Adebayo is a much better passer and creates for teammates in a way that few big-men can. He affects the game in a multitude of ways and I’m not sure Okongwu will ever have that type of impact.
Precious Achiuwa (Memphis) – You would be forgiven if at the beginning of the season you referred to Achiuwa as “the other Memphis big-man.” The 6-foot-9 forward projects as a late-lottery pick. If the ping-pong balls bounce the wrong way he deserves some consideration from the Wizards. Achiuwa looks like more of a forward than a center in terms of build. But in a league where small-ball fives are all the rage, Achiuwa running the break next to Wall is intriguing.
It’s a little harder to imagine Achiuwa guarding bigger centers like Joel Embiid so he might be best deployed as a situational center. However, he has long arms and the mobility to guard perimeter players. He seems a bit redundant next to Hachimura as they’re both probably best suited at the power forward spot. He provides the defensive versatility that Hachimura hasn’t shown thus far, but is much more limited offensively. Hachimura’s mid-range game at least gives you the impression that he can extend his range and become a proficient three-point shooter. I don’t get that sense from Achiuwa.
Options if they fall to the early second-round
Isaiah Stewart (Washington) – The 6-foot-9 freshman center would add physicality. Despite his age, he already looks like a grown man and is purported to weigh over 250 pounds. All of that appears to be solid muscle. Unfortunately, he isn’t a great athlete and at his height doesn’t project as a shot-blocker. It also doesn’t seem likely that he could switch out on the perimeter and defend anyone in space. Most mock drafts seem to have him slated in the late first-round which probably puts him out of reach for the Wizards anyway.
Aleksej Pokusevski (International) – Pokusevski is probably one of the least familiar names to people who are not actively paying attention to the draft. A European 7-footer that shoots threes, handles the ball, and passes well seems like the type of player teams would target in the first-round. However, his extremely skinny frame (under 200 pounds) and lack of high-level experience may cause teams to question whether he is worth the risk that high. He would likely benefit from more time overseas which could also make teams more hesitant to take him that early.
Given his thin build, he may not seem like the ideal fit for the Wizards. However, he has shown an aptitude for blocking shots. If he can bulk up , he may be the ideal blend of offense and defense that the Wizards are looking for. Considering that Wall is almost thirty years old, Pokusevski probably wouldn’t make sense for them as a win-now addition. But if they can address that need in the first-round and get a draft-and-stash player with major upside in the second round then it seems worthwhile.
Jalen Smith (Maryland) – This is a name local college basketball fans are probably much more familiar with. Smith is also projected as a late first-rounder in many mock drafts but some of these guys are ultimately going to fall. Smith showed elite shot-blocking ability at the college level this season and hit enough three-pointers to give front offices hope that he can be a three-and-D guy in the NBA. He would more likely be suited for a back-up power forward role but could help address their needs better than most. Assuming that he were available in the early second round.
Zeke Nnaji (Arizona) – A 7-foot freshman, Nnaji looks to have good lateral quickness and could stay in front of guys better than most players his size. However, he doesn’t appear to have great length and can struggle to finish over length on the offensive end. He does seem to show some touch on his jump-shot and projects as a better shooter than some of the other names on this list. He also made a lot of freshman mistakes on defense so he will likely improve on that end with more seasoning.
Vernon Carey (Duke) – At 6-foot-10 and around 270 pounds, Carey looks the part more than most. He’s a good rebounder but is not the type of athlete the Wizards are looking to add. I see the absolute ceiling for Carey being closer to a Thomas Bryant-type. He has shown only limited flashes of floor-spacing ability and he was able to play bully-ball at the college level. I’m not convinced he’s has enough athleticism or offensive versatility to ever be a starting center in the modern NBA.
Reaches in the early second-round
Udoka Azubuike (Kansas) – The 7-footer is much more of a traditional center. He’s a better shot blocker than most but can’t step out and guard on the perimeter at all and would be exposed in the pick-and-roll. Azubuike seems suited for a role similar to that of Anzejs Pasceniks, a third center to come in when you need someone to clog up the lane and eat up some fouls.
Killian Tillie (Gonzaga) – He’s 6-foot-10 and he can really shoot it. He also seems to put his big frame in the right spots defensively despite not being a great athlete. Ultimately, he doesn’t project as a rim-protector and he has a serious injury history. He’s a guy you consider buying back into the late second-round for.
Xavier Tillman (Michigan State) – At 6-foot-8, Tillman probably doesn’t have the size necessary to fill the need the Wizards are looking to address. That said, he hustles, scraps, and plays with energy, which is never bad to have come off your bench.