In many respects, point guard was the Wizards’ most uncertain position entering the season. Aside from John Wall — who might not even play this year, due to his Achilles injury — Washington didn’t retain a single player at the position who ended last season on its roster.
Rather than making a splash, Tommy Sheppard opted to sign a former All-Star to a one-year “buy low” deal, a lifelong backup for two years, an undrafted rookie to a semi-guaranteed deal, and another youngster who has split time between the NBA and the G-League to a two-way contract.
From the moment he signed, Isaiah Thomas has been the leader of this unit. And yet, you could easily argue that it shouldn’t be that way. We all know about his track record and how he was once a star player, but he’s been overcome with injuries ever since his best season in 2016-17, and that issue hasn’t exactly gone away. He missed the first seven games of the season due to a ruptured ligament in his left thumb — not to mention his two-game suspension for his friendly encounter with a heckling fan.
Perhaps the part that was less predictable was his on-court performance. He was always going to have more opportunity than he did last year on the Nuggets’ loaded roster, but he hasn’t exactly grabbed the bull by the horns. He’s shooting a career-best 41.5 percent from three-point range and his assist-to-turnover ratio is above 2–1 for the first time since his prime. His confidence is back, but his overall efficiency isn’t. His field goal percentage is only slightly higher than his three-point percentage, the offense has a tendency to slow down when he’s in the game, and his defense — that remains much like it’s always been.
There is a strong argument that Ish Smith has been the better player so far this season. While he doesn’t have Thomas’ scorer’s mentality, he’s been more successful in a complimentary role than his counterpart. Although Smith has started 12 games — all nine that Thomas missed plus his first three as he returned from his injury — he has primarily led the second unit. What he lacks in flashiness he has more than made up for with veteran savviness. His assist-to-turnover ratio is nearly 4–1, and he also plays the game the “right way”: always running up and down the court, passing the ball to the open man, and staying true to the assigned role on both offense and defense.
In terms of stats, Smith has made 45 percent of his shot attempts (including a career-high 36.8 percent from behind the arch). He’s averaging slightly below three rebounds per game, but he’s also only six feet tall and 175 pounds. Not all point guards excel on the glass, but they have to contribute to some degree, which Smith has. Overall, it’s the little things that have made him stand out. The fact that he hasn’t missed a game yet this season is an added bonus.
It’s difficult to give the rookie out of Virginia Tech anything more than an incomplete evaluation. He’s had decent value when he’s been on the court, but the Wizards are taking the process slowly with him. He’s only played 49 NBA minutes and taken 12 shots, but he has converted on three of his five three-point attempts — although that’s admittedly a very small sample size. He’s been jettisoned to and from the G-League team countless times so far this year, presumably to give him as many reps as possible while also giving him the necessary exposure to the NBA.
The more fair way to evaluate him is by comparing his production with the Capital City Go-Go to what he did in college.
- Jr/Sr at Virginia Tech: 46.8% field goals, 40.7% three-pointers, 2.9 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.6 turnovers, 1.4 steals
- 2019-20 with Go-Go: 46% field goals, 41.2% three-pointers, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 3.3 turnovers, 1.6 steals
In other words, he’s playing at almost the exact level the organization should’ve expected. The only slightly alarming number is turnovers per game, but considering he’s never played with his teammates before and likely hasn’t developed as much chemistry with them (since he’s been a part-time NBA player), it should be forgiven.
It may simply be because the Wizards are overloaded at point guard, but it also appears that Robinson is being used in a combo-guard role. That may not be reflective of his future usage, but he shoots well enough to be serviceable as a two-guard. There’s also a chance that they’re doing this to see if he could function on the court with Bradley Beal, who often needs the ball in his hands.
Gary Payton II
“The Mitten” looks like a diamond in the rough so far. He was a recent addition, thanks to one of the Wizards’ medical hardship waivers, but he’s likely more than a short-term roster filler.
Payton had some prior NBA experience, but he never became a fixture. However, he had always feasted in the G-League.
Through five games with the Wizards, he’s averaging 8.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, three assists, and 3.2 steals across 23.8 minutes per game, while shooting 42.9 percent from three-point range. Not all of this is sustainable, but his energy level likely is, and that’s where his value lies.
Much like Robinson, Payton is often being asked to play off the ball — he’s even drawn a few starts at shooting guard. It’s probably only to get the top available guards onto the court, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
His two-way contract has been terminated, but Chiozza was briefly a valuable piece on the fringes of Washington’s rotation. He wasn’t ready as a scorer, but his overall floor game was sound — 2.8 assists, 0.9 turnovers, and a steal in only 12.3 minutes per game for 10 games.
He remains with the Go-Go, where he has had similar production to Robinson, except he hasn’t been as efficient. While it may have been an aberration, he made slightly over 40 percent of his threes in the G-League last year. If he could ever approach that proficiency again, he would likely get another chance in the NBA.
It’s currently unclear if any of these players will factor into the equation next season and beyond — for varying reasons — but four point guards is arguably too many, especially considering John Wall will return at some point in the future. Here’s an attempt at ranking their “safeness”:
- Ish Smith
- Gary Payton II
- Isaiah Thomas
- Justin Robinson
From an immediacy perspective, two players will have to be waived or released once the Wizards return to relative health. Robinson has the least present-day value, so he’s the likely casualty. His contract extends past this season, but it also isn’t a substantial amount of money.
On the other hand, Robinson could also be retained on a G-League contract fairly easily. If the question is who is most at risk of leaving the organization altogether, it’s probably Thomas. If nothing else, his role as a second ball-dominant scorer who can’t defend starters makes him better suited for the second unit.
Then again, this could all change if Payton begins to struggle, and Smith could also be traded — although he makes sense as a backup to Wall next year.
The point guard position — much like most positions on the team — should be viewed as a process. The Wizards rank near the top of the league in offensive rating, but they’re bad (to historic proportions) on defense, and a lot of that naturally starts with point guard play. Expect some tinkering in the near future, and don’t be surprised if at least one of these players is gone by the trade deadline.