Whereas point guard and shooting guard are crowded positions in some regard — although not as much anymore, with Justin Robinson waived, Chris Chiozza in Brooklyn on a two-way deal, and Garrison Mathews banged up — small forward has been the position where you ask yourself, “Do they really have to play someone?” For a variety of reasons, this group hasn’t lived up to its billing. However, there should be hope moving forward.
The Wizards acquired Bonga in the Dwight Howard trade with the Lakers this summer. The 20-year-old German is very new to the game of basketball, so any analysis of him was based on projection. At 6-foot-8 with the ability to handle the ball, he seemed to provide versatility, with the potential to develop into a point forward. If nothing else, he should be able to serve as a defensive presence.
Bonga has played in 31 of the Wizards’ 36 games, starting 20 of them. For now, he is a defensive-mind wing player who won’t steal shots from the team’s top scorers.
Although he’s a starter, he’s only playing 16.2 minutes per game. He’s been an low-volume, efficient shooter (56.9 percent) from two-point range and he’s very active defensively (although his basic statistics don’t quite back that up), but the Wizards would undoubtedly like to see more from him.
Bonga is raw, but he appears to be trending in the right direction. He’s had back-to-back career nights — 15 points on 5-for-6 shooting on Saturday and 10 points and seven rebounds on Monday. If he can keep this up, he’ll stay within Scott Brooks’ rotation — if not the starting lineup — past this season.
Troy Brown Jr.
Brown spent the vast majority of his rookie season either outside of the Wizards’ rotation or in the G League. It was a lost season for him, although there is some value in making him — even as the 15th pick in the draft — climb the ladder.
With that said, there’s a reason why Brown has only started 14 of the 33 games he’s played this year. Although his skill set makes him a logical sixth or seventh man, his performance has also been spotty. He’s averaging 10 points and nearly six rebounds in 25.8 minutes per game, but his production has come in bunches.
Even so, he undeniably has talent. The Wizards’ recent matchup against the Celtics is a reminder that he has comparable traits and abilities to Jaylen Brown, a third-overall pick who also had a bumpy start to his career before becoming a force on both ends of the court this season. But none of that matters until D.C.’s Brown delivers on that potential.
He may be doing just that. Through four games this month, he’s averaging 16 points and over nine rebounds per game — including double-digit points in all four. Looking even further out, in the 15 games since his 22-point outburst against the vaunted Clippers on Dec. 8, he’s averaging just below 14 points and more than six boards per game with at least one steal in all but two of them. If this is a sign of things to come, he might be tapping into the player the Wizards had hoped for when they drafted him.
The outlook isn’t so fortunate for Miles. After missing the start of the season while recovering from foot surgery, the 32-year-old wing suited up for 10 games before suffering ligament damage in his left wrist. There’s a good chance that he won’t return this season, taking away the one three-point threat the Wizards appeared to have at small forward.
With that said, he seems to be in good spirits and is likely sticking around for at least a little while longer — if not all season. He’ll be a welcome addition if he ever returns to the court, but his veteran presence is vital on such a young team — not to mention at a position where the other players are both only 20 year old.
In terms of reps, it’s doubtful that much will change at small forward. Bonga and Brown did play elevated minutes against Boston — with Admiral Schofield as the only available true power forward — but both will remain well within the rotation when players return to action. However, they might be walking on relatively thin ice in that regard, considering that the young guards have also provided a boost recently.
What their true on-court roles are going forward has yet to be firmly established, though. Both can handle the ball and have the makings of solid defenders at multiple positions. However, neither of them have shot the ball as proficiently from distance as many small forwards do. While that doesn’t necessarily have to change, it would help them stay on the court in high-leverage situations, especially considering this team lacks three-point shooting — Isaiah Thomas and Davis Bertans are the only core players that have done it particularly well this season, although an uptick from Bradley Beal is likely.
An improvement in this area is absolutely possible — it’s actually fairly common.
- Jaylen Brown
- Year 1: 34.1%
- Year 2: 39.5%
- Justise Winslow
- Years 1-2: 25.8%
- Years 3-4: 37.7%
- Pascal Siakam
- Years 1-2: 21.6%
- Years 3-4: 37.9%
- Paul George
- Year 1: 29.7%
- Year 2: 38.5%
- Jimmy Butler
- Year 1: 18.2%
- Year 2: 38.1%
- Kelly Oubre Jr.
- Years 1-2: 29.6%
- Year 3: 34.1%
- Otto Porter Jr.
- Year 1: 19%
- Year 2: 33.7%
- Year 3: 36.7%
- Year 4: 43.4%
The key trend is that most of these players — Porter may be the exception — have elevated themselves once they’ve been embraced as scorers and playmakers — and frankly all-around players on both ends of the court — as opposed to shooters. Letting them do what they do best has made them more successful shooters; success breeds success. If the Wizards can take this approach with Bonga and (in particular) Brown, who knows what might happen?