Photo by Joe Glorioso for The Sports Capitol

Wizards 2018-19 player preview: This season is about...

BY BEN STANDIG | OCT. 18, 2018

Here’s a look at the 2018-19 Washington Wizards ahead of their regular season opener Thursday night at Capital One Arena. Rather than provide a standard snapshot look at each player, I pondered the same simple season-long premise for each. The order is based not on best, but rather how valuable each player’s situation is to the Wizards returning to their contender form after entering the playoffs as the eight seed last season.

For Devin Robinson, this season is about… becoming Kelly Oubre Jr. insurance.

Oubre remains the springiest player on the main roster, but perhaps only because the 6-foot-8 Robinson is only tangentially connected via a two-way contract. Both forwards are more athlete than player. It remains unclear how much of their respective upside is tangible. We know Oubre can play in the league. Whether the 2015 first-round pick and 2019 restricted free agent reaches a level worthy of the eight-figure salary he likely receives next summer, we’ll see. If Robinson’s overall game springs to life during his season with the Go-Go, the Wizards may believe they have an athletic replacement should the Oubre contract talks exceed reality.  

For Jordan McRae, this season is about… offering Scott Brooks a viable fourth-guard option when injuries or circumstances strike.

The Wizards will eventually fill the roster spot previously occupied by Jodie Meeks. That new player whether a shooter, athletic wing or a table setter undoubtedly plays guard barring the unforeseen. McRae gets the first chance to earn that role. The 6-foot-5 guard offers length, scoring and defensive potential. He’s been in the building for weeks as a two-way contract player. At some point, at least one of the four main guards suffers a multi-day/week injury, or needs a day off. Then, the fifth guard joins the rotation. It could be first-round pick Troy Brown Jr. Reminder: He doesn’t turn 20 until July. Rather than go the standard route with a rookie for the available two-way contract, the Wizards signed a 27-year-old with NBA experience and a championship ring. Remember that as well.

For Thomas Bryant, this season is about… upgrading his defense

It’s unlikely the 6-foot-10, 248-pound center plays much anytime soon even if Dwight Howard’s sore back issues resurface. It’s very possible Bryant is part of the 10-man rotation next season if he improves — and Howard opts out of his contract — considering Washington’s salary cap issues. The offensive game and energy are intriguing now. Getting his defense up to NBA standards is the biggest hurdle.

For Jason Smith, this season is about… remaining upbeat and knocking down 3-pointers

The man always ready with the high-five or slap on the back for players coming off the court had plenty of practice last season. Smith fell out of the rotation as his 3-point shot clanked (4 for 32) while Mike Scott’s connected. The 2019 free agent enters the season on the outside again, but at least the 7-footer’s perimeter shot looks right again. If and the Wizards need a stretch-5 with size, Smith gets the call. That is unless Ian Mahinmi’s 3-point shooting experiment takes hold.

For Troy Brown, this season is about… Trusting his hoops IQ even when the NBA becomes overwhelming

Brown, 19, is one of the youngest players in the NBA this season, which means some bullying is coming his way. He doesn’t have a clear spot in the Wizards’ 10-man rotation. Both factors combined could make for some long, confidence-shaking stretches for the former 5-star recruit. There will also be playing chances – and the kid can play. Brown’s passing and instincts are light years ahead of Oubre’s. The rookie battles on the boards. That his perimeter shot isn’t honed yet combined with the inexperience and Washington’s depth chart likely keeps him off the court consistently. As long as Brown doesn’t try becoming something he isn’t when given minutes, the Wizards should have a nice rotation piece down the line.

For Kelly Oubre, this season is about… accepting a smaller role if he cannot expand his game

The fans love this guy. Few players look the part of NBA superstar more than this 22-year-old with a massive wingspan, explosive hops, and cool kid vibe. Here’s who doesn’t care about such things: his head coach. Scott Brooks wants a player he can trust in team defense concepts, who will buy into ball movement offensively and knock down shots. After three seasons, Oubre isn’t particularly sound in any of those areas. Brooks had no choice but to rely on the small forward off the bench considering the overall weakness of the second unit. No more, not with the other options available this season.

Washington wants the 2019 restricted free agent’s game to go next level or at least a point where handing him a hefty extension won’t feel wrong. Oubre, who does provide energy regularly, isn’t there yet. Brooks typically uses 10 players each game. There’s a pecking order within the 10. After serving as the Wizards’ sixth-man, Oubre may find himself at the end of that group whether it’s after 25 games, two weeks into the season or by Thursday’s opener against Miami. That is unless he shows real improvement in those weak areas, and quick. Brooks doesn’t have to live with on-the-job training anymore.

For Ian Mahinmi, this season is about… playing the best 12-15 minutes per game possible without fouling out

Enough with the contract kvetching. We all know Mahinmi isn’t worth the $64 million deal. What we may finally see this season is something akin to the player Washington believed it was adding in the summer of 2016. The 6-foot-11 center appears more agile, confident than the previous two seasons. He doesn’t offer much variance with Howard – unless that 3-point shot, which looks very nice in warm-ups, becomes a viable weapon.  What the Wizards need from Mahinmi coming off the bench: Rebounding, rim protection and not looking like a deer learning to run on layup attempts. Something tells me Washington gets its wish in small doses. At this point, that’s a win. As for those who just can’t get over the contract, here’s some good news. That’s four-year deal becomes an expiring contract after the season. Root for good health this season with the hope they move that money for other assets next summer. Of course, if Howard doesn’t return, Mahinmi might be the best center option next season…

For Tomas Satoransky, this season is about… tacking on another good season no matter where he plays

At times last season, it felt like everyone watching the Wizards loved what Satoransky provided at point guard except for Brooks. The coach typically hyped the 6-foot-7 player’s versatility instead of noting Satoransky was the best backup behind John Wall in years. Satoransky becomes a restricted free agent this summer. Somebody out there will covet his skills, and with good reason. The “Everybody eats” stretch of last season took on that name in part because Satoransky’s pass-first style is contagious. He may play off-ball more this season with Austin Rivers around, but the offensive dynamic with these two might be the single most significant upgrade compared to the Game 1 roster last season.

That Satoransky can shoot from distance, and play all perimeter positions offers Brooks some creative lineup opportunities. As of Oct. 17, Satoransky is also a better NBA player than Oubre. The coaching staff must recognize this. If they don’t, those that do will swoop in with contract offers next summer.

For Jeff Green, this season is about… Stretching his versatility to playing the 5 late

Green cannot touch Scott’s 3-point shot, but the 6-foot-9 forward offers a much more well-rounded player. Folks love dinging Green’s occasional disappearing act. Fair, as long as they also note he was the second-best player on the court last season for the winning/road team in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Green, who joined Washington on a 1-year, minimum deal, replaced Scott in the rotation. Based on his the ability/athleticism to guard 4-5 positions, he could swipe some small-ball center minutes from Markieff Morris if not flat out take them. That includes run in the final minutes of games. We know Brooks is a fan going back to their days in Seattle.

For Markieff Morris, this season is about… Ignoring the noise

There’s the contract year, which is vital for everyone, but a bit more here considering the Morris twins were hosed by the Phoenix Suns when they last negotiated a new deal. There’s the trash talk, which seems to find Washington’s power forward. There’s the complaining to referees, which Morris does with such regularity that he often finds himself handed a technical foul or saddled with early trouble. For the best version of the Wizards, like the one that ripped off 17 consecutive home wins during the 2016-17 season, all of this must fade into the background. The son of Philadelphia will never lose his edge – and the Wizards need it. They just need it channeled into rebounding, defending opposing bigs and splashing those open shots. 

For Austin Rivers, this season is about… taking control of the second unit

Only because of Howard’s eccentric ways has Rivers’ quirks been overshadowed. Chalk up some of the 2019 free agent’s prior troubles with the Clippers to playing under his coach/dad, Doc, and some teammates struggling with any hint of nepotism. With Austin Rivers on the roster, the Wizards should finally avoid the bench woes that plagued this team in recent years.

If Brooks insists on using five reserves at the start of the second and fourth quarters, at least this time he has a go-to guy. Rivers can create for himself and run the offense. Where Wall and Beal struggled in isolation sets last season, Rivers shined. It’s clear Brooks wants to use the trio together. Don’t be shocked if such usage occurs late in games. The main point is Doc’s curing of Washington’s bench production woes. By most accounts, the prognosis is excellent.

For Otto Porter, this season is about… getting his within reason

Porter is the Wizards highest-paid player this season. Anyone who thinks that means he must now go out and start firing off shot after shot to earn his keep doesn’t understand the instinctive and efficient beauty of the small forward’s game – or basketball. Porter does need more aggression this season; even those close to the situation agree it’s time for that part of his game to show. It’s also possible the presence of Howard and Rivers with a healthy Wall means Porter doesn’t eclipse last season’s 11.5 shots per game average. 

Whatever the tally, no more passing up open 3-pointers unless the next pass truly sets up a better opportunity. Brooks says the green light on 3-pointers cannot be any greener. Maybe the coach needs to run more plays for Porter. Perhaps Wall and Beal need to trust him more late in games. Porter asserting himself more would help both scenarios and likely garner additional respect from teammates in this alpha world they inhabit. It’s not crazy stating the Wizards need more from Porter for true contender status. It would be wild if they once again don’t call his number often. It’s also time for the small-town guy with a big salary to hunt for his shots, to get a little mean.

For Dwight Howard, this season is about… Fitting in more than standing out

Three weeks of back and butt talk kicked the main concerns with the starting center off the headlines. We haven’t forgotten. We also haven’t forgotten that we asked the player Howard replaced, Marcin Gortat, for thoughts on Washington’s new center. Gortat offers unique insight since he played with the Wizards’ top three players since 2014; under Brooks the last two seasons; behind Howard for the first 3 ½ seasons of his career.

“It’s unbelievable how much the NBA has changed. Guy who used to dominate the game so badly came to the point where nobody appreciates what he’s doing,” Gortat told The Sports Capitol. “Like, seriously, it’s that bad? [Howard] averages 16 points and 12 rebounds. He’s an animal. Is he a great player? He’s somewhere between great and good basketball player. He’s missing a few things. Statements from his trainer that he wants to be like [Kevin Durant or Anthony Davis] or his own version, alright, come on, man. … He’s not that bad as everybody says as a teammate. He’s a great teammate in the locker room. He’s not a bad guy. He’s a clown. He’s a fool joking around, but sometimes that’s what a team needs. Sometimes they need serious guys, sometimes they need someone who can loosen up the atmosphere. …

“The stuff I’m reading about him that he’s a cancer in the locker room, that’s all bullshit. I’m telling you right now it’s all bullshit. … What the problem is, in my opinion, he’s still living with the idea that wherever he’s going to go he’s going to be a player that gets post touches 10-15 a game and go to work. Now, can he score in the post? Yeah, he can. He might make two moves, running hook to the middle or spin baseline for a left hook. Add some lobs at the rim. He can do that and score, but again, [3-pointers count more than 2-point baskets]. That’s how the NBA goes now.

“Now, there’s another factor. You have four thirsty guys [in the starting lineup]. John Wall, Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris in his final contract year. How the hell you want to fit Dwight in there with 10-15 post-ups? … That’s what is going to be the issue. He wants to do what he wants to do. You’re not going to do this with John and Brad. I’m telling you. Just watch, watch what’s going to happen.”

Many of the players and those around the team currently love Howard’s joke-heavy ways. We’ll circle back in a couple of months. As for the touches, one source told The Sports Capitol that Howard knows what’s expected. Essentially take over Gortat’s rebounding and screen setting duties, but with (in theory) more athleticism and (in reality) greater rim protection while (ideally) hammering home lobs at the rim. If Howard wants consistent shots, attack the offensive glass for putbacks. The fear is Howard wants consistent shots and decides to ignore the offensive flow is how he’ll get them. We have no idea how this might go especially since the future Hall of Famer sat out the entire preseason. Recent history – Washington becomes the fourth team Howards plays for in four years – suggests we do. Perhaps Howard gained some perspective after the Hornets and Nets said goodbye this summer.

For Bradley Beal, this season is about… Not trying to be John Wall

Beal received his first All-Star nod for a reason last season. He was spectacular at times, notably when his improved dribble-drive game enhanced his textbook jumper. Washington’s leading scorer primarily got his offense within the regular flow. Several league sources told The Sports Capitol that if ever forced to pick they would go Beal over Wall because the shooting guard can blend in with any system unlike his backcourt partner.

Yet as last season progressed, and Wall missed chunks of time with a knee injury, Beal’s game changed and not for the better. Late in games, he often turned into an ill-equipped version of Wall with a heavy-focus on isolation plays. Shoot more 3-pointers as his coach desires, great. Try mimicking Wall because he thinks he should or (worse) he recognizes the long rope handed to the point guard, not good. Beal is corporate. Wall, authentic. Beal just became a dad. Wall lives his life out loud and doesn’t care what you think. They are different in many ways, including on the court. That those differences blend with the near perfection of legendary combinations like peanut butter and jelly, beach and books, and Hall and Oates is why they are arguably the best NBA backcourt this side of Golden State. The Wizards will go as far as their starting backcourt takes them, as long as both stay in their lane.

For John Wall, this season is about… realizing he’s been on the Wizards roster longer than anyone on this team

The five-time All-Star uses his elite vision to rank consistently at or near the top of NBA assist leaders. Sometimes it just isn’t clear if he recognizes his missteps.

Humans tasked with answering questions from reporters on a near daily basis often use pat answers. Wall owns a few, including one when asked why the Wizards often play down to the level of their opponent. “If you want to be a championship team, be a team that do well in the playoffs and the regular season and succeed, you have to stay at a steady level,” Wall said in April the day after Toronto knocked Washington out of the 2018 playoffs. “You might drop a little bit, but you can’t keep going up and down every year all year. That’s something we’ve been dealing with since I’ve been here.”

That last line – “something we’ve been dealing with since I’ve been here” – is correct. It’s also crucial Wall understands what he’s saying. He arrived in 2010. All the other current Wizards players came later. Same with the head coach. Gortat isn’t around anymore. Blame team president Ernie Grunfeld for a variety of transactional sins as needed. Once the ball is tipped, he becomes a spectator.

Teams take on the personality of the dominant figure. In the NBA, that’s usually the star player. In Washington, that means Wall. When the Wizards are stout defensively, Wall picks up his man with passion. When opponents enter the lane with ease consistently, that’s often a sign Wall let his guard down. (Washington hopes cutting down his minutes over the course of the season means fewer stretches of Wall saving his legs on defense). The same goes for complaining to referees vs. upbeat vibes, and ball-dominant offensive sets vs. free-flowing action. 

When this team came within a game of the 2017 Eastern Conference Finals, Wall played at an all-NBA level. For those that believe Wall can be the best player on a title team, looking solely at the blinding speed with the ball, filthy offensive moves and highlight-worthy passes isn’t enough. The flaws are evident. Some have been around ever since he entered the NBA. They aren’t set in stone. In some cases, Wall just needs to recognize the changes required. If he does — while avoiding any batch of injuries — the Wizards win 50 games this season for the first time since the 1978-79 season (My actual prediction is 47 with good health and a reasonable amount of sanity). If he doesn’t and the Wizards repeat last season’s roller coaster, Wall and his ginormous contract extension might be about the only familiar faces in Washington entering the 2019-20 season.

Ben Standig is a host, writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. This D.C. area native grew up rooting for all the local squads and dabbled in the professional media world after college before making a full shift to sports writing in 2005. Since, Ben has covered every team and big event in town for several outlets including the Associated Press, NBCWashington.com and Scout.com.

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