Wizards Ready for a Rebuild


A new age of Washington Wizards basketball is here.

Gone are the attempts at sneaking into the No. 8 seed, as fresh management looks to bottom out and rebuild organically. No one’s picking this team as an Eastern Conference dark horse, but potential building blocks are still worth observing.

This Wizards roster is lined with players young and old, proven talents and others yet to be discovered, and the team will try to ignore what will likely be a loss-heavy record in favor of keeping their eyes on the future.

Washington finished the preseason with a record of 3-1, but the process in getting there revealed the messy floundering of a team that’s finally pulled the plug after nearly a decade of aimless middling. The halfcourt offense will be stagnant, and they’ll be outrebounded almost every night, but new executives Michael Winger and Will Dawkins want to evaluate the roster and coach they have in Wes Unseld Jr. after two uninspiring seasons at the helm.

Likely Starters

We start with Kyle Kuzma, the team’s de-facto emotional leader and the only remaining 20+ PPG scorer from last season. 

Anyone who kept an eye on Washington’s most recent disappointing finish is familiar with Kuz’s game; he shares a lot of similarities with newcomer Jordan Poole in that they both primarily have eyes for the rim, but have proven themselves as willing passers when they want to be and boast a scoring ability both from distance and at the cup.

The difference between the two is that Kuzma is 6’9, an above-average rebounder for someone with his relatively slim frame and a halfway-decent defender. 

He showed the full package across the first two preseason games, relentlessly slashing his way into the paint and finishing strong above the Hornets to rise up as the squad’s lone bucket getter with any size. He didn’t play in the final two outings with a bum calf, but the D.C. faithful are more than familiar with his game.

Poole, conversely, didn’t miss a game, and gave the fans a full preview of what to expect with the ball in his hands this season. 

He played in all 82 games last season as a Warrior, and while his durability is an unquestionable asset, he wore out his welcome with Golden State as his daring three-point shot diet came back to haunt his splits. His percentages from deep slipped from 36.4% to 33.6% between the championship-winning 2022 campaign and last year’s flameout, which he arguably became the face of when his struggles increased in the playoffs.

The Wizards’ third preseason game against the Knicks was Poole’s first shot at showing what he had to offer as the lead guy with Kuzma sitting, and he didn’t disappoint. He dropped 41 points in three quarters, nailing 10-of-19 shots to go along with six made threes on 12 tries, each attempt more difficult looking than the last. What’s more, he connected on 15-of-16 free throws, showing his ability to bum rush the basket while drawing contact.

He wasted no time showing just how far the pendulum of first option Poole can swing, as two days later he shot a nauseating 1-for-15 in Washington’s sole preseason loss. He’s always confident, so just because he’s missing doesn’t mean he’ll stop trying. There’s clear talent there as a shot creator for himself and others, but don’t expect consistent results out of the gate.

Fellow newcomer Tyus Jones represents the complete opposite. While Poole — his presumed backcourt mate — can run hot or cold, Jones has built a resume out of stability, armed with one of the league’s elite assist-to-turnover ratios and a lethal floater. 

He took some time getting his legs under him, but finally flexed his point guard chops against the Knicks with a solid 13-point, seven-assist night in the Garden.

The eight-year NBA veteran stands at only six-feet flat, and neither he nor the usually defensively disinterested Poole are expected to accumulate many stops. They can, however, handle the ball and penetrate defenses at a respectable rate, which will buy them plenty of playing time with an assortment of role players who don’t share that trait.

Daniel Gafford is all but confirmed to be the team’s starter at the five, given his status as the Wizards’ only actual rostered center. 

He’s hung around with the team since Russell Westbrook was still in town, and has averaged a consistent nine points on 70% shooting, with his range rarely exceeding the restricted area. 

The 25-year-old appeared just as productive on both sides of the ball in preseason, but the team will require him to step up his rebounding, as his average of 5.6 per game as a Wizard won’t be enough for a starting center on a team with few others to help him on the boards.

Homegrown WizKids

Washington’s last four NBA draft selections – Deni Avdija, Corey Kispert, Johnny Davis and Bilal Coulibaly, in the order of oldest to most recent – all look to break out as rotational players or better this season. Several of them will compete for the final starting position on the wing, where they can each provide a unique skill set.

Coulibaly, a 19-year-old French prospect picked seventh overall by Washington over the summer, entered as the third-youngest player in the league, but certainly didn’t look like it as he dominated on the defensive end for two straight weeks.

He was drafted by the team for his potential, albeit raw, as a defender, athlete and playmaker, and his game on offense didn’t lag far behind. Coulibaly was a willing shooter when the ball swung his way, and moved off the ball with expertise to ensure he was never out of a play.

Most interestingly, much of the same could be said of Washington’s mercurial ‘22 draft pick, Johnny Davis.

The former 10th overall pick spent the majority of last season splitting time between being buried on the bench and G League affiliate Capital City Go-Go as the scoring ability he built a name with at Wisconsin seemed to have dissolved at some point before last season’s start, along with his confidence on the court.

Though his shooting form looks kookier than ever, now featuring an awkward hitch as he brings the ball up to his side, Davis raised eyebrows as an off-ball threat before heading back to the bench with an elbow sprain. He read plays on defense, shifted his feet in anticipation and continuously found himself in the right spots to make plays, positive signs for a team that’s willing to take whatever they can get from him after last year’s debacle of a rookie season.

Corey Kispert was never as much of a concern, as he walked into the league with a clear role in mind. He’s a dead-eye shooter who’s looking to expand his game to firing on the move, and he came into preseason aggressive.

The Gonzaga alum took 23 threes across four games, and though he only sank seven of them, his potential as a gravity-bending shooter gives him a clear avenue to emerge as the team’s fifth starter.

Deni Avdija, currently the team’s longest-tenured player, too looks to crack the starting lineup now that he’s been rewarded with a four year, $55 million extension. 

He’s surfaced as one of the best young defenders in the league since his 2020 draft selection, blossoming into a statistical darling on that end of the floor. The 6-foot-9 forward displayed the full package against Knicks star Julius Randle in Avdija’s first game back from back tightness, holding the burly forward to tough perimeter shots and cluttered drives to the rim. He, along with Coulibaly, will be assigned to stymie top opposing wing threats.

Teams will continue to bait Avdija into beating them with his three-ball, which he’s struggled with across three seasons. He’s a career 31% shooter from deep on little volume, but he sank four of nine tries in two preseason games with a quicker release. Coach Unseld wants his team to let it fly more than ever before, and he’s looking at Avdija to step up his attempts.

Rounding out the Rotation

This team is one severely lacking in length, as previously stated, which leaves the backup center minutes up for grabs for veterans Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala.

The two stretch bigs have a lot in common, as they were packaged together from Boston in the Kristaps Porzingis trade last summer. They’re a pair of highly competent shooters, each posting career averages of 38% from behind the arc, and their range from off the bench is a long way from the Alex LenRobin Lopez frontcourt rotation of 2021.

Neither were ever great stoppers in their youth, though, and will provide liabilities down low on the defensive end with advanced age. Gallinari is the older of the two, and showed all 35 years of mileage as he struggled wading through screens over the four games. He’ll get his minutes with crafty scoring off the dribble, as he can still get a good shot off from anywhere on the court.

Muscala, a more basic catch-and-shoot big, is more fleet of foot at 32, but won’t be trusted to protect the rim for longer than a few minutes at a time. He went 5-for-5 from deep to start the game against the Knicks, and his shooting will be enough to get him onto the floor.

Delon Wright and Landry Shamet, two NBA veterans who contending teams are sure to keep eyes on, should receive the brunt of the minutes backing up Poole and Jones.

Wright proved himself one of the league’s very best perimeter defenders last season, and he’ll look to keep providing his edge in a platoon role. Shamet, for his part, didn’t play a preseason game with a broken toe, but his reputation as a shooting specialist may very well field the Wizards front office several calls from around the league.

Here are the remaining rostered players expected to receive major minutes.

Ryan Rollins is one good breakout candidate, as his inclusion in the Poole trade provides him with an opportunity to show off his scoring flare and long wingspan. He saw increased action as the preseason rolled on, playing as many as 23 minutes against the Raptors, a positive sign for his potential role in the rotation.

Eugene Omoruyi, a 6-foot-7 who plays bigger than he is, also caught eyes when inserted late into games. He split six total games last year between the Thunder and the Pistons, but looked to be a respectable post presence all preseason as he scored down low, ran the floor and imposed his physicality when he could. His tough style could give him a shot with a team otherwise missing that player.

Patrick Baldwin Jr. is the last of Washington’s young fringe-assets. Standing at a lanky 6-foot-9, he identified as a shoot-first forward without the success, as he canned just one shot on 10 attempts over two games. He has a lightning-quick release, and if tamed could prove a resourceful two-way option with decent length and a high motor. PBJ, along with stalwart veteran Anthony Gill, survived the last round of waivings as they’ll look to provide some juice from reserve roles.

About Henry J. Brown

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