Since new head coach Scott Brooks arrived in DC in the off-season, the Washington Wizards have rediscovered a word that went missing from their vocabulary last season: fun.
The team’s practices – while hard-charging and intense – are often punctuated by laughter and playful jibes between players and coaches. The scowls and groans of frustration often evident last season, when the team amassed a middling 41-41 record and missed the playoffs, are out. Chest bumps and big grins are in.
Most players credit the change in atmosphere at the Verizon Center to the team’s new head coach. Brooks, a former NBA point guard who coached the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2008 to 2015 and won NBA Coach of the Year honors in 2010, replaced Randy Wittman in May.
“Coach Brooks makes the game of basketball fun again,” said Kelly Oubre Jr., one of the Wizards’ most charismatic youngsters and a player expected to make a big contribution as small forward this season.
Fifth-year shooting guard Bradley Beal, who inked a five-year, $127 million contract in the off-season and is gunning for his first NBA All-Star berth, also notices a marked improvement in the team’s mood.
“It’s definitely a different vibe,” Beal told On Tap, while offering assurances that the team will reach the playoffs. “It’s more upbeat and I’m happy about that. Guys are actually going harder and they’re more focused. It’s exciting. It’s a new year with new faces. We feel like we have a great opportunity.”
Coach Brooks is also optimistic and upbeat – to a point. The team’s slow start in November didn’t give the Wizards’ new coach much to celebrate, but the team picked up the pace and started winning more games in the latter half of the month.
“They should be having fun,” Brooks told On Tap in an interview after a practice session that saw a loose and happy John Wall, the Wizards’ typically serious all-star point guard, clowning with forward Otto Porter during free throw drills. “This is a fun game that we all love. But there’s a balance between having fun and being too happy. We’re having fun, but we’re also serious about our jobs.”
The Wizards’ General Manager Ernie Grunfeld was dead serious about improving the squad’s anemic defense when he lured an in-demand Brooks to the nation’s capital with a five-year, $35 million contract in the off-season. The fact that the Wizards missed the playoffs in the 2015-2016 season after nearly making it to the Eastern Conference finals in 2015 was due at least in part to the fact that the team couldn’t stop opponents.
A retooled lineup that has versatile power forward Markieff Morris – acquired at the end of last season – in a starting role should give the team some much-needed muscle down low, while the signing of talented, veteran center Ian Mahinmi as a backup to starting center Marcin Gortat provides another good defender in the paint. Brooks doesn’t shy away from his reputation as a defensive-minded coach, but he stressed that he has the Wizards working hard on their offensive schemes, too.
“We want to have a consistent approach on how we play,” Brooks explained. “We don’t want to be just a defensive team or an offensive team. We want to be a two-way basketball team, and I think we can be a very good two-way basketball team.”
While off-season additions and roster changes give Washington a somewhat different look, Wall remains the heart and soul of the franchise. Brooks told On Tap he likes what he’s seen from Wall, who underwent surgeries on both knees in May. The Wizards will go as far as the explosive ball handler and his rehabbed knees can take them this season. Brooks said he expects Wall to regularly log 30-35 minutes per game – a full load for many starters.
“He’s been diligent in his rehab, and he’s been consistent with the work he’s put in,” Brooks said. “He’s continued to build up his conditioning, and he’ll keep developing. He’s still a young player in this league.”
As for Beal, the talented other half of Washington’s backcourt, Brooks said he’s impressed.
“He has a great shot,” Brooks said. “He can shoot from deep range, he has a pull-up game, he has a pin-down game, and his pick and roll game is improving but…I also think he can be close to 4-5 assists a game every night. [Beal] has definitely improved his passing, and he has to – everybody has to keep on working on passing the basketball.”
Asked what he brings to the franchise, especially when it comes to coaching the younger players that populate the Wizards’ youthful roster, Brooks cited consistency.
“The players will always see consistency out of me,” he vowed. “Whether we win by an incredible buzzer beater of a shot or we lose a very difficult game, the next day I’m always consistent. I’ve had some good coaches along the way that had the same approach. My staff and organization will come to work every day and find ways to improve and focus on getting better.”
For more information on the 2016-2017 season, go to www.nba.com/wizards