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The Washington Wizards begin their 2020-21 season tonight against the Philadelphia 76ers with bright-eyed optimism.
A different energy is running through the team this year as the Wizards opened training camp by trading their former All-Star guard, John Wall, for nine-time All-NBA player Russell Westbrook. While Wizards fans should remember the Wall era fondly, the arrival of Westbrook gives the team a new buzz.
Everyone feels it, especially Westbrook’s new co-star Bradley Beal, who has been raving about his new teammate’s energy all preseason.
“Russ brings a definite focus and persona about himself that resonates with the rest of the team,” Beal says. “You have no choice but to feed off of his energy. It’s been nothing but positive vibes. The energy’s been through the roof. Coach probably has to stop us sometimes because we’re going too hard. It’s still an adjustment on everybody’s behalf, but so far so good.”
Coach Scott Brooks embraces the camaraderie of his new group and almost certainly sees Westbrook as an extension of himself on the court. The two have a relationship dating back to when Brooks coached Westbrook on the Oklahoma City Thunder for six seasons, leading the Thunder to the NBA Finals in 2012. Having the 32-year-old Westbrook on the team will give the Wizards a veteran voice on a young roster that boasts 10 players under the age of 25.
The majority of this young core got a chance to play in the NBA bubble in Orlando, but that team did not include Beal, who opted out with a shoulder injury. The Wizards only won one game during their time in the bubble.
Brooks compared the training camp vibe of his young team to that of a university.
“It’s been great,” he says. “We changed up a lot of the things we were doing. We brought in a lot of players last season that we were going to use to gain experience and it was like a university atmosphere. Well, the last three days have been like ‘Wizard U.’ I thought the guys had been locked in.”
The Wizards will be relying heavily on a cast of these young players to contribute. That includes the team’s No. 9 overall draft pick from last month, Deni Advija, who plays with a confidence of a player who has seemingly been in the pros before.
It’s because he has. Even though Advija is only 19, he has been a professional basketball player for three years with Maccabi Tel Aviv in his home country of Israel. At 6-foot-9, he has the requisite size to guard multiple positions and the skillset of a guard who can handle and pass the ball. In his preseason outings, Advija has looked like a player who can contribute right away.
As much as Advija’s potential playing time has been earned, it also comes out of a moment of necessity as the Wizards will be looking to replace their starting forward minutes with last year’s first round pick, Rui Hachimura, out for the first three weeks of the season. Hachimura missed the final two preseason games because he was diagnosed with a “severe case” of an infection commonly known as pink eye. Last season, Hachimura averaged 13.5 points and 6.1 rebounds and was named to the All-Rookie second team.
The Wizards will also rely heavily on Thomas Bryant, who will be going into his third season starting as the Wizards center. Bryant, 23, will be one of the pivotal players that needs to excel this season if the Wizards want to make it to the playoffs.
While he struggled to find his footing last year before the league’s shutdown, Bryant wound up being the Wizards’ best player in the bubble, leading the team with averages of 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game over eight contests.
Besides Westbrook, the Wizards biggest signing this offseason was bringing back free agent sharp shooter Dāvis Bertāns.
Bertāns had the best year of his career last season, averaging a career high 15.6 points per game and shooting 42.4 percent on three-point shots, making him one of the most accurate shooters in the league. That is the type of production that led the Wizards to give Bertāns a five-year, $80 million contract extension during the free agency period. Whether Hachimura is in the lineup or not, expect Bertāns to have a very significant role for the Wizards for the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, the team’s success depends largely on its leader on the court: Bradley Beal.
Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard has gone out of his way to comment on how the team is building around Beal, who was the second highest leading scorer in the NBA last season with 30.5 points per game. Before Wall left for Houston, he told Beal that the franchise is his now.
“I talked to him and wished him the best,” Wall says. “Keep doing what you’re doing. Lead that franchise now because now you’re that franchise guy. This is what the organization wanted.”
With Westbrook and a young, energetic core in place, Brooks expects the team to make the playoffs.
“We’ve got a good team,” he says. “We’ve added some good players. Russell and his ability to lead a team and get a team better, he has a track record of that. Obviously, things have to go our way. The league is fighting covid, as the world is. That’s obviously a factor. We can’t relax in that regard. Injuries, we’ve gotta get lucky there.”