By definition, Isaiah Thomas can’t be considered old. The All-Star NBA point guard is only 30. But in the Washington Wizards’ locker room, he’s been alive longer than all but three of the 17 players on the team’s roster this season.
As of the opening night of the season, the Wizards had an average age of 26, while the NBA average is 26.18, according to the annual NBA roster survey. Their most recent starting lineup consisted of Thomas, Bradley Beal, and three players 22 or younger: Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown Jr., and rookie Rui Hachimura.
Youth and inexperience can account for some of the team’s early struggles. Players have been thrust into unfamiliar circumstances, and the Wizards have started the season with a 2-7 record, second to last in the Eastern Conference.
“It’s a lot of teaching,” Thomas says. “Guys haven’t played meaningful minutes in the NBA, a lot of these guys. You know, they got to experience it themselves, but we also got to teach. The veteran guys got to walk these guys through different situations, but at the same time, they’re getting opportunities to be able to figure out those situations. I mean, it’s tough, but it’s a challenge, and I accept all challenges.”
Young players like Brown and Hachimura have struggled with consistency in their play. While Hachimura has exceeded some expectations with solid offensive performances and averages 13.6 points per game, he went scoreless against the Indiana Pacers on Nov. 6. Wizards coach Scott Brooks recently criticized Bryant’s shot selection, saying he needs to go to the basket and catch in the paint more. On Oct. 23, Brooks inserted guard Isaac Bonga into the starting lineup due to injuries to C.J. Miles and Brown.
When those players returned, Brooks replaced Bonga, who turned 20 earlier this month, with Brown, another 20-year-old. Brown, a second year player with the Wizards, split his time with the team’s G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go, last season. During the team’s 113-110 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Nov. 8, Brown finished with three points, six rebounds, one assist and committed three turnovers, while Bonga, who only played 120 total minutes for the Los Angeles Lakers last season, did not enter the game.
“It’s definitely [a] challenging situation no matter who you’re coaching, veterans, younger guys,” Brooks says. “I think when you coach a younger group or a group that hasn’t had a lot of NBA experience, you have to slow it down a little bit, be patient and let them play through the mistakes instead of reacting with every mistake. There are plenty of times I’d like to react, but I know longterm that’s not the best case.”
With new general manager Tommy Sheppard in place ahead of the season, the Wizards reshaped their roster to reflect a restart to the franchise. Team owner Ted Leonsis announced the creation of Monumental Basketball in July and surrounded Sheppard with a number of organizational hires from the sports industry to bolster four teams under Monumental Sports & Entertainment: the Wizards, Mystics, Go-Go, and Wizards District Gaming.
Sheppard dumped veterans like Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, and Tomáš Satoranský, and brought in a young core that includes rookies Admiral Schofield and Justin Robinson, and second-year player Moritz Wagner, all of whom are 22.
It may feel like a rebuilding period for the Wizards, but the players on the team don’t like using that term. Thomas believes that the Eastern Conference is “wide open, other than a few teams” and that the Wizards can “sneak up on people.”
“I don’t want to talk about rebuilding,” says Wagner, a second-year NBA player from Germany. “I’m not going to do that. I think we have one of the best players in the league here [in Beal]. We owe it to him to compete every night. Same with IT. I think we have vets on this team that want to win, and I think Coach Brooks does a good job, everyone in this room, of finding the right balance between learning and developing players, but also putting us in a position to compete. It’s on us to do that, and I’m not ever going to talk about rebuilding.”
Ish Smith, the third-oldest player on the team at 31, sees positives of having younger players in the locker room. He agrees with Brooks and Thomas that a team with inexperience requires more patience, but believes the Wizards can benefit from an abundance of youth.
“First and foremost, it’s because everybody wants to play fast,” Smith says. “When you got a young team, you can bring that energy, you can bring that juice, and they do that everyday to practice, everyday when we’re playing.”
“Everybody’s really ambitious,” adds Brown. “Everybody really wants to come out and prove themselves. Everybody’s really hungry. Especially when you’re young, you’re trying to make a name for yourself.”
When Smith was a rookie for the Rockets in 2010, he joined a team that included Yao Ming, Shane Battier, Brad Miller, and Kevin Martin. The veteran presence made life easier for him and fellow rookie Patrick Patterson, Smith says.
But when asked specifically what young players struggle with, Smith, like a savvy veteran, doesn’t mention specific names, but instead points to the overall lack of NBA experience. The Wizards, he believes, are also a mature group for their age. Brown was lauded for his basketball IQ before he entered the league, and Hachimura, who constantly has a trail of Japanese media following his every move, is soft-spoken and eager to learn.
“It’s just little things that you see out there,” says Smith. “It could be defensively on a screen and roll, communicating. Let’s say I’m in a position where I can like tell one of the guys [to] get low, I’ll stay high, just communicating why you’re out there … When you’re in the game and you see it, and you’ve been in the league 10 years, some guys 12 years, some guys seven, eight years, you can see the play before it happens, so you can communicate it before it develops.”
Plus, having them around has off-the-court advantages.
“They keep you young,” Smith says. “You can live vicariously through them, like how they joke and clown, and how they see things. It’s funny because you would be like, man, when I was your age, I didn’t think like that.”
But Thomas, who is in his first year with the Wizards, doesn’t see much of an advantage to having a young team besides their energy. Players are going to have “learning points throughout the season” and that requires more teaching, he says.
Thomas went from being the last pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to an All-Star and MVP candidate with the Celtics. Whenever a young player asks about his journey, he won’t hesitate to discuss it. During practice, Thomas guides them through different scenarios and carries himself on the court with an air of confidence that comes with being in the league for nearly a decade.
“Everybody’s been a young guy in this league and you don’t know it all. Things are coming so fast, it’s the best players in the world every night,” Thomas says. “It’s tough, but it’s a lot of teaching for the young guys. You have to learn to be patient and know they’re not going to understand it right now. It’s going to take time.”