The Washington Wizards have a big year ahead of them. Bradley Beal locked into one of the most lucrative contracts in NBA history this offseason and the team set out on the tall task of building a contender around him. General Manager Tommy Sheppard wheeled and dealed for eight months to improve the team’s talent. He emerged with a new core around Beal by acquiring Kristaps Porzingis, Monte Morris, and Will Barton. Head Coach Wes Unseld Jr. will need to mix in the new faces with his returners to make the playoffs in his second year. Sheppard and Unseld Jr. met with the media on Tuesday to discuss their offseasons and look forward to the regular season. Both were excited about this year’s roster. While every team is excited at this stage, the Wizards brain trust had interesting reasons for their optimism.
The Wizards are different but familiar
The Wizards will hopefully get major contributions from five players acquired since February. If Will Barton wins the starting small forward job, three starters will be complete strangers to Bradley Beal on the court. Sheppard pointed out that only three players that actually played in the team’s last playoff series in 2021 are still on the roster. However, the coaching staff and returning players have connections that breed familiarity with the acquisitions.
“It’s a unique situation. We had a lot of movement in the last eight months,” explained Unseld Jr. “It’s a new team but the same with a very familiar feel to it.”
Unseld Jr. coached Morris and Barton in Denver, spending six years with the latter. Morris also grew up with Kyle Kuzma in Michigan. Porzingis obviously played for the Wizards last season after Beal went down. Unseld Jr. believes the familiarity with his system and terminology puts the defense in a good starting spot.
The team’s ability to practice this summer may end up being more important than past connections. This was the first full NBA offseason since the pandemic, which means players had time to work out together. Sheppard revealed that 14 of the 16 rostered players worked out together in L.A. The only two that didn’t go, Avdija and Porzingis, were playing for their national teams.
“The connectivity these guys have had this summer. It’s been wonderful. they’re very familiar with each other,” said Sheppard. “It is a new team but it’s not new to us, because we’re familiar with these guys. They’ve been around.”
Sheppard and Unseld Jr. believe there is a new mentality
The Wizards brain trust said they’ve sensed a new mentality coming along with the new faces. Before last season, Sheppard brought in players with important playoff experience by trading for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and Kyle Kuzma. Sheppard continued to run with that idea for the 2022-23 season. Barton and Monte Morris played major roles in Denver’s recent playoff runs. Porzingis has more playoff experience than most of the Wizards despite his injury woes. The team also signed Delon Wright and Taj Gibson to bolster the team’s playoff readiness.
“A lot of players we brought in faced a lot of stress in winning situations,” said Sheppard. “That translates well [and] transports to a new team. They bring that winning mentality. They have high standards for themselves and bring players up to their standards. Sometimes, the best coaches are the players in the locker room.”
Gibson and Wright both got special shout-outs during the press conference. At age 37, Gibson’s days as an on-court contributor are waning. But Sheppard and Unseld Jr. appreciate his voice in the locker room and his ability to bring people together. Sheppard called him a leadership bookend to bolster Beal’s presence. They also believe that Wright can prevent late-game collapses that plagued the team last season and compete for an All-Defense spot.
It’s September, so everything sounds amazing in theory. But the Wizards come into this season with the most playoff experience they’ve had in a while. The potential starting lineup of Morris-Beal-Barton-Kuzma-Porzingis have all played important roles in big games. Hopefully, the experience, familiarity and leadership can avoid the locker room issues of last season.
Washington really values international basketball
One of the most surprising parts of the press conference was how much the Wizards talked about international basketball. Two Wizards players competed for their national teams this summer. Deni Avdija led Israel in points, rebounds and assists in EuroBasket. Kristaps Porzingis helped put Latvia on the road to qualifying for the 2023 FIBA World Cup. Additionally, Craig Sword and coach Mike Williams of the Capital City Go-Go represented Team USA in AmeriCup.
“I’m very fond of international basketball. I think FIBA competition simulates as much stress and pressure you can put on a player outside the NBA Playoffs,” said Sheppard. “We want all of our players to compete for their countries.”
Sheppard and Unseld Jr. both traveled to Europe to see their players. Unseld Jr. traveled to Riga, Latvia and watched Porzingis dominate Turkey. Sheppard saw Porizingis in London and Avdija in Prague. Porzingis showed that he was healthy and ready to play at peak performance. Sheppard said that Avdija’s leadership experience provided him with more confidence than they’ve seen from him yet. The trips fostered connections with the players and their international coaches, which could lead to a greater understanding from the coaching staff. International basketball can often be seen as a negative in the NBA due to the risk of injury. It’s refreshing to hear a team support it.
The Wizards will be playing some international basketball of their own this preseason. They will travel to Japan after media day on Friday. Washington will take on the defending champion Golden State Warriors twice in Tokyo’s Saitama Super Arena. This will be Washington’s first look at how their new group is meshing and, hopefully, the good vibes from the summer lead to a good start.