Several Wizards Showing Signs of Promise


The Washington Wizards rewarded loyal fans with a rare treat last Wednesday night, improving to 2-5 on the young season with an assertive 132-116 victory over the similarly — but not equally — unimpressive Charlotte Hornets.

The win provided a nice break from a four-game schneid that dated back to October, one that had seen the Wizards bench their starters for nearly the entirety of the fourth quarter multiple times. The otherwise rarely-used benchwarmers had become staples of the closing units, a pattern the team mercifully broke by playing ten players at least 13 minutes in the commanding W.

Kyle Kuzma and, in particular, Jordan Poole have soaked up the majority of any Wizards-related headlines through the first two weeks, posting occasional bloated-looking statlines in double-digit losses to the amusement of many. The team’s most-recent win is a stark reminder that not all is bad in the nation’s capital, as the majority of Washington’s rotational pieces still carry asset value.

Kuzma, for one, has starred in his role as a full-time lead guy, averaging 25 points, seven boards and three assists through seven games. He dumped a season-high 33 points on Charlotte last Wednesday, and his once-questionable effort levels on defense have only heightened. Poole, for his part, hasn’t been quite that caliber of scorer, as his 17.4 points per game on underwhelming 42/32/79% splits.

But what about the rest of the rotation? The eight or nine unproven draft picks and stable veterans are still looked at as forgotten contributors or otherwise complete strangers to fans of other teams, but a few have truly impressed so far this fall.

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Deni Avdija, confident and capable

Washington’s 2020 lottery selection Avdija remained without a rookie extension until days before the start of the season, but a fresh four-year, $55 million deal erased any doubt that he’d start at small forward and let him know that he’s a valued member of the new front office’s future plans.

He’s earned their trust through the first pair of weeks, as he looks to have made a clear step forward in pairing his intriguing two-way potential with tangible, on-court results.

The fourth-year player is averaging 13 points per game — the team’s third-highest mark — on 53/47/79 splits. He’s a big body at 6-foot-9 and has shown signs of scoring down low, but his new-and-improved three-point stroke is what’s turning heads. Avdija spent the first three years of his career canning 31% of his threes on a reluctant three attempts per game, but a quicker release has helped him turn from occasional offensive liability into someone capable of taking over a quarter— something he’s done multiple times as of recent.

As a draft pick in an admittedly wonky year, he was advertised as a prospect capable of using his frame as a sturdy point-of-attack defender to go along with his born passing chops. He’s brought both of those traits into the new year, averaging a career-high 3.6 assists with his connective ball-movement and enhanced decision making. His defense isn’t quite all-league caliber, but he’s still one of the only guys in Washington capable of hanging with opposing wings and forwards on the defensive end.

So far, he’s someone who’s using the absence of an All-Star like Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Russell Westbrook to his advantage so far with increased responsibility, as his developmental trajectory is making for a true bright spot.

Daniel Gafford, the only man in the middle 

It was one of the biggest gripes fans had with the team’s roster construction heading into October.

We all knew that these guys were lottery bound, but the lack of any true center behind 25-year-old Daniel Gafford sounded like a recipe for potential disaster.

How’s it gone so far? Well, the Wizards are 2-7 as we know, and that’s much to do with their poor rebounding (45.4 rebounding percentage, the league’s worst mark according to NBA.com) and defensive rating (119.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, the league’s second-to-worst mark).

Gafford can’t do it alone, but darn it, he’s doing his best.

The 6-foot-10 center has at least maintained all of the skills he’s shown through his previous two and a half seasons in Washington, succeeding as a rim-runner and defensive anchor when he can.

He’s never been one to take shots outside of his comfort zone, as well over half his shot attempts as a Wizard have been hoisted between 0-3 feet, according to Basketball-Reference. The career-70.7% finisher is converting more than ever, as the center’s field-goal percentage of 82.4% is the second most among active players this season who’ve attempted at least three shots per game (NBA.com).

His fumbling hands in the post were once considered a nuisance for Wizards fans, but he’s even been cleaner than ever there, too. He’s never been an adept rebounder, but his 6.6 boards per outing make for a career-high, and does his 22.5 available defensive rebound rate (Basketball-Reference).

The majority of his value, though, lies on the defensive end. He’s one of the squad’s lone stoppers, evidenced in his 2.6 blocks per game, the third-most in the league behind All-Defensive-level players like Anthony Davis and Nic Claxton.

The Wizards fell flat on their face against the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 6 with a 146-128 bludgeoning that wasn’t as close as the score would suggest, but Gafford put on an early show with an eight-point, five-block first quarter in which he packed reigning MVP Joel Embiid‘s shots three times in the first four minutes. Washington has few bodies to join him in locking down the paint, but he’s doing his part.

Bilal Coulibaly, waiting for his chance

Coulibaly, the Wizard’s lone rookie entering the season, has been itching for real minutes.

An old-school coach like Wes Unseld Jr. would prefer he prove himself above the veterans taking his minutes, but he’s shown several intriguing flashes despite his inconsistent presence in the lineup.

Defense was what got him drafted seventh overall this summer, and it’s been the most pro-ready part of his game so far. He rarely starts out guarding top opposing threats, but has a knack for instantly proving himself up to the task whenever he gets a chance. That recent win saw him hold his own when isolated against Brandon Miller, a fellow rookie who’s looked comfortably since Day 1 right until he met his match.

He’s looked playable on both ends, too. Coulibaly was promoted through the pre-draft for his raw abilities, a term often referring to gifted athletes lacking fundamentals, but he seems to be rapidly closing the gap with his three-ball. He’s taken and made more shots from distance the longer he’s stayed on the floor, including canning two against those Hornets. His form looks polished, only enhanced by his feel for the game.

For the moment, his contributions are largely arriving from off the ball. Kuzma, Poole and Tyus Jones command the majority of handling duties when one of them are in the game, which is always, so he’s yet to truly operate as the focal point of an offense. That’s not expected of him anytime soon, but he looks like he’s heading towards a primary role.

The benchwarmers, the upstart fan favorites

Few NBA fans, let alone Wizards fans, knew who Eugene Omoruyi was entering the season. As of a month ago, he was a 26-year-old forward who’d logged 54 games in the association, starting six total as a Maverick, Thunder and Piston. He was an unheralded entry onto the team’s preseason squad, but it was there when he emerged as a potential rotational piece.

His breakout as a 6-foot-7 small-ball big spoke to the team’s need for physicality, as Omoruyi proved himself a fighter on defense and banger in the post. He hung on to snag one of Washington’s two-way deals, and didn’t take long to make an impression.

The Wizards found themselves at the barrel-end of several hopeless-looking losses, and Omoruyi helped captain several valiant efforts in turning around blowouts with effort levels that dwarfed the starting units left opponents mildly surprised.

Of any five-man units who’ve played at least four games together, Omoruyi, Coulibaly, Johnny Davis, Anthony Gill and Ryan Rollins have the second-lowest defensive rating in the entire league at 50 points allowed per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. They’re only behind a Hawks bench lineup, one who’s only shared the court three minutes compared to those Wizards’ 24 minutes.

They fight and claw against whoever they play, whether they’re straggling starters or benchwarmers for the other team. The poor Wizards fans who’ve already been treated to nearly a half-dozen blowouts have these guys to fight for them, if nothing else.

About Henry J. Brown

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