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Wizards Questions Part 1: Is Troy Brown or Isaac Bonga the small forward of the future?

In a multi-part series, we will go over the Washington Wizards’ positional and team challenges for next season, or even the rest of this season if we can get some games in. First up: Some questions on the team’s small forward situation.

Washington Wizards Open Veterans Day Practice
This is literally the only suitable photo we could find of Troy Brown AND Issac Bonga. In this photo they are positing with an airman at an open practice from last November.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

As we pass the two-month mark since the season shut down due to COVID-19, there is uncertainty in what to expect for the possible resumption of this season, the changes in the salary cap for next year, and when the major parts of both the season and offseason will take place and just how different each will be.

Figuring that we are likely looking at the status quo for at minimum another month or two, it seems like a proper time to think about some of the questions facing the organization. We’ll start with a two-part series on internal questions that the team is hopefully considering and planning around. These questions relate to players that are currently under contract for next year.

Later on, we’ll take a look at external decisions facing the team, with players that either are not under contract for next year or have variability in their team control. First, do the Wizards already have a solution at small forward in place?

The Wizards’ main two players at small forward this season, Troy Brown Jr. & Isaac Bonga, are each 20 years old. Brown Jr. turns 21 this summer, and Bonga in the fall. Both players experienced growing pains this season, but each showed a number of characteristics that merit a longer look from the Wizards.

Troy Brown has promise heading into his third NBA season

Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors
Troy Brown had a good sophomore season with the Wizards so far.
Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Brown Jr. is seemingly underrated by Wizards fans. He is 1.5 years younger than draft targets Obi Toppin and younger than Saddiq Bey too. He did not have a bad year, despite his ups and downs. Brown has good size to play the wing and has come a long way in two years with his shooting from outside.

Taking a closer look at his numbers (via Cleaning the Glass) from this year, there is plenty to be encouraged by. If you take away his heaves at the end of games/quarters he’s at 36.2 percent on threes for the season. He finished in the 80th percentile for wings at the rim and in the 98th percentile on corner threes.

Brown’s percentage of threes taken with his overall shot profile is lower than ideal but I expect he would be getting more open looks from that range next year with Wall returning. He also shot only 25 percent of his threes from the corner, hitting 48.6 percent, and that number of attempts relative to overall 3-pointers should certainly rise. If he keeps converting them, naturally his points per game will go up with it. Overall, his effective field goal percentage and numbers across the board rate mostly as average but there are reasons for optimism.

I don’t ever see Brown being more than a secondary playmaker, and that’d be just fine if he spends his career doing that. Catching and shooting, cutting, getting the ball on the move, running out on the break, I think he can succeed there and a lot of what he did this year shows he’s capable of it. That’s valuable!

It’s easy to lump Brown into the group of poor defenders on the team, but he showed some positive signs on that end too. He needs to be stronger to guard the bigger and best wings, though he had an above-average steal rate, didn’t foul a bunch, and his rebounding is very good for a wing. I don’t foresee him being a defensive issue, and he could end up being a positive contributor on that end when (if) surrounded by other competent defenders.

Big picture, we should remember just how young Brown really is. He had an odd year and having his minutes and role yanked around towards the end of the season wasn’t helpful but he could have a bright future in D.C. and is the type of player who could take a leap next year.

The biggest issue that I have with Brown, and he’s not alone as a 20-year old who struggles with this, is his consistency. There are nights when he is aggressive, looking for his shot and impacting the game overall. But then there are nights when he gets an open look and hesitates, or defers too quickly or settles for too many mid-rangers or floaters. It’s a process and I think the Wizards leadership team realized that and is trying to coach it into him more to make use of his entire time on the floor, I’d guess it’s part of the reason why his minutes went down in the last few weeks, them showing some tough love.

If Brown plays the way he did in December & January for a larger portion next year he is a really strong piece to have and may end up being the best wing the Wizards have, even if they draft someone there or can add a veteran in free agency. Brown needs to show that level of play more often and with consistency. Some would think that going into year 3 we’ll see more of that.

How about Isaac Bonga?

Atlanta Hawks v Washington Wizards
Issac Bonga started in 41 of 58 games in the 2019-20 NBA season.
Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

Bonga showed some positives this year and is even a few months younger than Brown. I think that after some question it’s clear that he is a wing (not a point guard) though he could end up being a secondary ballhandler on some occasions, it’s not likely that he’ll be creating offense often. I think it’s more likely that Bonga ends up as a 3-and-D type and remains someone who barely handles the ball in the halfcourt. He seems to have the versatility to develop into something more, but that seems unlikely.

At this point, Bonga is a young, raw, and undeveloped player on the offensive end. Which is exciting, because he’s showing growth and appears to have a lot of room to keep growing. But if the team is trying to take the next step next year, Bonga will probably need to show more to justify playing time.

As for what Bonga does at a high level, it was difficult to understand his true strengths in the beginning portions of the year. He often played decent minutes and contributed next to nothing offensively. But, Bonga comes across as a high-awareness player on both ends (outside of the fouls), defends fairly well, and has good touch around the hole that can use his length pretty well when finishing.

Though his jumper is falling at a high rate, Bonga needs to shoot it more. He attempted almost 42 percent of his threes from the corner and converted 47.8 percent. He needs to add strength and become more aggressive on the court to continue earning his minutes, but there’s no reason that can’t happen. John Wall’s return should set up a higher number of open looks that require him to launch from distance more.

Bonga has shown that he should continue to be developed and it wouldn’t surprise me if he took a leap to a double-digit scorer next year who looks like an integral piece moving forward. Between he and Brown Jr., the small forward positions could possibly be figured out by players on the roster. It is going to take time and patience with each of them. Both are showing that they should be considered as a part of the future.

All that said, having them as the main guys next year in that position would probably not be sufficient with the playoff push that we are all anticipating. Overall, the wing may not be such a critical need to surpass these two players. If the right player isn’t there in the draft or free agency, I think that we will see both players taking bigger roles next season, and justifying them with their play.

In part two, we will take a closer look at the defense moving forward and the frontcourt positions and some questions regarding them.