Washington Wizards Kick Off a Rebuilding Year

On Wednesday night, the Washington Wizards will take the court for the first time of the regular season. When they trot out for the opening tip-off, there will be a lot of new faces. With that in mind, the new roster deserves an introduction.

Point Guard

John Wall: I mention the Wall Star because he’s still around, but it’s unrealistic to expect him to take the court this season. He’s still recovering from the Achilles injury he suffered in February, and head coach Scott Brooks has affirmed that the face of the franchise will not be rushed back.

Isaiah Thomas: He may not mean what Wall does to this franchise, but Wizards fans will soon learn “what time IT is” even though they probably already know. Just three seasons ago, Thomas averaged 28.9 points per game with the Celtics en route to a fifth-place finish for league MVP. He’s been injury-riddled himself since then, but his scorer’s mentality is undeniably still there.

Ish Smith: The 31-year-old may not be as electric as Thomas, but he is one of few players who has historically rivaled Wall’s speed. He’s far from elite in any other area, but he has averaged as many as 6.5 assists per game (2015-16) in a single season.

Justin Robinson: If anyone can match Wall’s bulldog mentality and intensity on both ends of the court, it’s likely Robinson (a rookie out of Virginia Tech). He averaged nearly 14 points and over five assists per game in his last two seasons of college, as well as north of a 40 percent conversion rate from behind the three-point line. He could be a sneaky asset for this team.

Shooting Guard

Bradley Beal: He will be the undisputed bell cow for the Wizards until Wall comes back and possibly even once he does. Beal made his second consecutive All-Star team last season and was the first player in franchise history to average 25 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game in a single season. He also led the league in minutes played which will have to be monitored this year

Jordan McRae: The lanky bucket-maker spent last season on a two-way contract, but became a surprising fixture in Brooks’ rotation down the stretch. Look for that to continue this year, particularly since he appears to be running unopposed for the backup off-guard role.

Small Forward

Troy Brown Jr.: Amazingly, the 20-year-old and 15th overall selection in last season’s draft is the only returning forward for this team. He played in 52 games last year (14 minutes per contest), starting 10 of them. However, his usage rose shortly after the All-Star break particularly from mid-March until the end of the year. He scored at least 13 points in four of the team’s last six games, including a 24-point outburst in a road win over the Denver Nuggets on March 31. Given his unique skill set, he’ll likely receive reps at the guard positions, as well.

C.J. Miles: The one thing Brown doesn’t do particularly well shoot is the one thing Miles provides a decent amount of. Last season was far from a banner year for the veteran in that regard (33 percent), but his stroke did improve after a late-season trade from Toronto to Memphis. Washington will bank on that continuing.

Isaac Bonga: Another youngster, Bonga is tough to evaluate. By all accounts, he is a high-energy wing player in the mold of Justise Winslow, but there’s a very small observable sample size. He only played 120 minutes with the Lakers last year and was overseas prior to that. Basketball Reference projects him to average 12.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 steals, and a block per 36 minutes but how close to 36 minutes will he actually play?

Admiral Schofield: The second-round rookie out of Tennessee intrigues me. At six-foot-five and 241 pounds, Schofield averaged 16.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game as a senior, earning First-Team All-SEC honors. The trouble is he doesn’t profile as a prototypical small forward, due to his frame. Although he made nearly 42 percent of his three-point attempts last season, he also has a rather elaborate windup that may lead to blocked shots as a pro. He might eventually wind up a small four, not to dissimilar from Draymond Green.

Power Forward

Davis Bertans: Here’s a textbook stretch four. The fourth-year pro has knocked down just over 40 percent of his three-point attempts in the NBA, but the rest of his repertoire is a bit limited. Bertans has also only been on the court for 16 minutes per game in his career, so it’s fair to question whether his past production will hold up with extended minutes.

Rui Hachimura: The Japanese phenom is Washington’s most prized possession, aside from Beal. Hachimura was taken sooner than most pundits expected, but he’s plenty talented albeit somewhat raw. He recently scored 19.7 points per game at Gonzaga, including a more-than-respectable 41.7 three-point percentage. If he can bring that and his visible tenacity to the NBA, he could become the secondary star that this team needs.

Center

Thomas Bryant: The recently-extended center is a testament to how much hard work and patience can pay off. Due to extremely low usage early in the season, his 2018-19 statistics don’t do him justice, so here are his 2019-20 projections instead: 18.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes which he will probably come close to playing.

Moe Wagner: Bryant’s emergence is a major part of why Wagner will be the second-string center to start the season, despite playing only 10.4 minutes per game as a Laker last year. In his last year at Michigan, he averaged 14.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, and he nailed just under 40 percent of his three-point attempts in each of his last two campaigns. He was also the MVP of the Big Ten Tournament in 2018, as well as a NCAA All-Tournament finisher. Clearly he’s talented, and he steps up in big moments. Those two things project favorably.

Ian Mahinmi: I’m tempted to not highlight Mahinmi at all, because my hunch is he receives a lot of DNP: coach’s decisions this year. Nonetheless, he is an emergency big who Brooks can turn to if either Bryant or Wagner suffer an injury. More importantly, this is the last year of his behemoth contract don’t be surprise if he’s off the roster before the end of it.

Two-Way Contracts

Chris Chiozza and Garrison Mathews will make appearances at various points of this season similarly to McRae last year. Chiozza will serve as point guard depth, while the sharp-shooting Mathews could become an important wing player before the season is over. Otherwise, they’ll be in the G-League with the Capital City Go-Go.

I’ll highlight them in more depth at some point, but for the sake of (relative) brevity, I’ll save that for later.

Likely Depth Chart

I’ll include Wall, but it’s extremely doubtful that he suits up this season.

  • Point Guard: John Wall, Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas, Justin Robinson
  • Shooting Guard: Bradley Beal, Jordan McRae
  • Small Forward: Troy Brown Jr., C.J. Miles, Isaac Bonga, Admiral Schofield
  • Power Forward: Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans
  • Center: Thomas Bryant, Moe Wagner, Ian Mahinmi

The proposed starting lineup for the season opener against the Mavericks features Smith, Beal, Bonga, Hachimura, and Bryant. However, that is due to injuries to Thomas, Brown, and Miles.

There’s no chance that Bonga and Schofield cover all 48 minutes at small forward they probably won’t even play 36. Instead, expect Smith and (particularly) Beal to receive heavy workloads, with Robinson and McRae receiving some of their time in three-guard alignments. Shifting Hachimura down a peg for a short spurt or two is also a possibility, as are rare spot minutes for Mahinmi.

Admittedly, I would prefer Bertans with the starters to begin the season. That’s not a slight to Hachimura; I simply prefer making non-transcendent rookies earn their stripes before getting heavy reps with the first unit I think it helps build a “prove it” culture. I felt the same way about Brown last year to an even larger degree, but he’s ready for the opportunity this year.

My strongest opinion is at point guard. Isaiah Thomas is undeniably talented, but he’s not a facilitating point guard whatsoever. He and Bradley Beal could coexist, but it wouldn’t be optimal. This second unit especially without Hachimura has a dearth of scorers, and Thomas could go a long way towards fixing that. Additionally, he’s a five-foot-nine defensive liability (to no fault of his own). He typically has to be hidden on that side of the ball, but the burden to do so is lessened against reserves less potent offensive weapons.

Looking Ahead

This will likely be a tough season. FiveThirtyEight projects the Wizards to finish at 31-51, which seems like a fair assessment, although they could easily exceed it if players develop like they could and arguably should. There’s simply a lot of unknown on this roster.

They’ll kick off their season with five consecutive games against Western Conference opposition:

  • Wednesday, October 23: at Dallas Mavericks (8:30 p.m.)
  • Friday, October 25: at Oklahoma City Thunder (8:00 p.m.)
  • Saturday, October 26: at San Antonio Spurs (8:30 p.m.)
  • Wednesday, October 30: vs. Houston Rockets (8:00 p.m.)
  • Saturday, November 2: vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (8:00 p.m.)

None of those games will be easy, but that’s just how it goes in the NBA. If nothing else, it will set the bar for what to expect from the Washington Wizards this season.

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