What Wizards can take away from NBA bubble

After eight games in the NBA bubble, the Capital City G- I mean, the Washington Wizards did not qualify for the NBA playoffs. Pardon the error, but given the team’s performance, there were instances where I thought Washington might have sent their G-League affiliate instead.

With the absences of top scorers Bradley Beal and Dāvis Bertāns, the expectations were low, but that didn’t take the pain away from watching a handful of sloppy turnovers, ill-advised shot attempts and poor defense. The Wizards challenged the Brooklyn Nets as having the worst roster in the bubble, and yet when the two teams faced off, it was the Wizards who lost by eight points.

That was their slimmest margin of defeat throughout the eight games. Not including the 96-90 victory over the Boston Celtics’ bench in the season finale, the Wizards lost each game by an average of nearly 12 points per game (11.86, to be exact). This Beal-less roster had no business competing for a playoff spot; the league fed this young, unqualified group of players right to the wolves. Well not literally; Minnesota was not a participant in the restart.

So a big takeaway is that without their two best offensive players, the worst defensive team in the league will struggle mightily against other playoff teams. That much was clear from the get-go, but which less obvious takeaways can be drawn from the team’s pride-draining stint in the NBA bubble?

Training camp or fantasy camp?

The Wizards were not going to make the playoffs. Even if they did, at the absolute best they would earn the eighth seed and lose to the Milwaukee Bucks in five games (I’ll have the Giannis Antetokounmpo/Moe Wagner mind games save the Wizards from a sweep). At worst, well, we pretty much saw that.

1-7 is better than 0-8, and I suppose the very worst would have been losing one of the young guns to a serious injury lasting through next season, but this eight-game stretch was less about contending for the Finals and more about giving the team’s young supporting cast some real game reps against playoff-caliber competition as sights shift towards the 2020-21 season.

But it wasn’t just usual supporting players like Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr. that were in Orlando this month, although we’ll get to them later. Replacing Beal, Bertāns and others who missed time were G-League call-ups and end-of-the-bench players who rarely see real minutes.

It was less of a “who’s who” and more of a “who’s that?” Excuse me as I go on a brief tangent, but I’ve always been amused by the phenomenon of fans of a successful team sharing pictures of the team’s starting lineup from right before they reached prominence.

A great example is the pre-dynasty Golden State Warriors, which featured David Lee, Monta Ellis, Dorrel Wright and Andris Biedriņš as usual starters in 2011-12. Ellis and Lee put together some good seasons individually, but they pale in comparison to what the Warriors became with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson & co.

There’s no indication that the Wizards will blossom into a dynasty anytime soon, but if it reaches that point, the first thing I’ll think back to as they lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in triumph is when Jarrod Uthoff clocked in 24 minutes for Washington in a real, regular season game. This occurred earlier today, in the 96-90 win over Boston, but I will always remember that bit of information as a reference point to see how far the team has come, should they ever experience real success in the near future.

This isn’t meant to clown Uthoff, who totaled eight points and three rebounds in just his 16th career NBA game. He’s getting paid to play basketball and he had the opportunity to play a significant role at the highest level of the game. Good for him.

However, the 27-year-old forward was one of a handful of Wizards players in the NBA bubble who played significant minutes in at least one game when they normally aren’t good enough to see the court. Johnathan Williams, who grabbed 16 boards in 25 minutes against the Celtics today, and Jerian Grant were two other players from the G-League that received a fair share of playing time at one point or another.

We likely won’t see some of these players again, at least not in the same role that they had in the bubble, but in eight games that revealed just how dire things are beyond Beal, we at least saw what we had at the lowest depths of the roster and will be able to build accordingly once the usual stars return.

A foundation is building

With the normal stars not in Orlando, the young trio of Bryant, Hachimura and Brown flashed what they could someday turn into. Bryant averaged 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in the bubble while committing just five turnovers total. The 2017 second-rounder did everything to solidify his status as the starting center for this team moving forward.

Brown came to the Wizards as a raw prospect that would take time to develop. Forced into the spotlight, even as the starting point guard occasionally, Brown displayed significant progress that will hopefully earn him a larger role next season. Brown averaged 15.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists and he just turned 21 years old on July 28.

Hachimura, meanwhile, missed the final game thanks to a quad injury, but the likely All-Rookie selection averaged 14.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists. Hachimura has the most potential of anyone on the roster, drawing comparisons to All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard, even receiving praise from the two-time Finals MVP himself earlier this season. He has a ways to go before reaching Leonard’s level, but if he can even get close, the Wizards will be in fantastic shape in the future.

Beal, John Wall and Bertāns (if re-signed) can’t come back soon enough, but if Bryant, Brown and Hachimura can build off this experience and take a step forward next year, the Wizards won’t be on the edge of the playoff picture when the postseason rolls around.

What positions could be bolstered in 2020 Draft?

With the 2019-20 season officially over for the Wizards, all focus will go to the 2020 Draft. The Wizards hold the ninth-best odds for earning the first overall pick. However this year, holding the top pick may be more burden than blessing; this draft class contained so many question marks before the pandemic, and now the suspension in basketball activity everywhere gives teams less time to work with prospects and observe them up close.

No matter where the Wizards end up drafting from, they must take the best player available regardless of position. That should be the strategy for any team, and even the Wizards could use help at any position, but after viewing the team’s depth beyond Beal, which positions could use the most support?

For me, it’s at center, then guard. Bryant showed why he’s the team’s big man moving forward, but he played just 46 games this season after missing time with multiple injuries. Ian Mahinmi’s disaster of a contract finally comes off the books next year, meaning the only other center under contract is Wagner. Anžejs Pasečņiks could re-sign, but that’s not the most inspiring option.

The center position is becoming less crucial to a team’s success than it was in the past, but grabbing a versatile big to compliment Bryant could go a long way.

Looking at guard, Wall and Beal will hopefully be returning to form as the All-Star duo they once were, and Brown will join Jerome Robinson and Isaac Bonga as younger options in the rotation, so the need may not be as glaring, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Who knows how well Wall will play upon his return, and although Brown showed promise in the bubble, his ceiling doesn’t appear to be that of a perennial All-Star. If the Wizards can land a future franchise cornerstone at guard who can be eased into action behind Wall and Beal, it would be a great fallback option if the All-Stars can’t find their way again.

No matter which position they go with, a naturally great defender should be high on the list of priorities. One lottery pick won’t save the entire defense, but after such an atrocious year defensively, a boost is necessary. I’ll create a list of my favorite prospects in the near future, but for now, the bubble Wizards showed what management should focus on in the draft.

The NBA restart was not a very fun experience for Wizards fans, but at least there are a few things to look forward to in 2020-21 and beyond.

Cover Photo Credit: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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