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Film study: Why are Trey Burke, Jason Smith playing better for Wizards?

Film study: Why are Trey Burke, Jason Smith playing better for Wizards?

The improved play of the Wizards can be directly traced to the output they're now getting from a second unit that had been at best invisible all season. Kelly Oubre's value already has been accounted for, though he hasn't played well since a Dec. 16 concussion. 

The backup point guard, Trey Burke, has become more aggressive offensively and is looking to shoot more and Jason Smith is knocking down his open looks on screen-and-rolls and benefitting from defenses leaving him uncovered. 

But this is about much more than making or missing shots. Players go through hot streaks all the time. Coach Scott Brooks has used them in different ways and with different combinations to get better results. 

So let's compare what Burke and Smith looked like earlier in the season (discombobulated) to what they're looking like in December, when the Wizards went 10-5 to get to 16-16 entering 2017:

 

Early in the season, Burke was watching Oubre run screen-and-roll with Markieff Morris. Having him stand on the weakside waiting for a pass from Oubre whose strength isn't creating for others off the dribble isn't going to work for anyone. 

Running a screen-roll with Andrew Nicholson makes this easy to defend. The defense isn't going to worry about Nicholson rolling and finishing at the rim. It forces Burke into a difficult spot and he makes an impossible pass at Morris' ankles for a turnover.  And the spacing isn't good, either.

Smith doesn't seem really involved in this screen-roll with Burke. They force the switch but Burke doesn't attack Bismack Biyombo. Smith doesn't roll to the rim (not his strength) and doesn't spot up as if he's expecting the pass for an open shot. He's just lost in space and he's completely out of position to hit the offensive glass. Burke steps back and takes a low-percentage look rather than making Biyombo, who is really good at defending small players, actually defend him.

How much different does the Burke-Smith screen-roll action look here when they run it crisp and with confidence? And Smith finding the soft spot in the coverage looking to shoot.

Now let's look at how they're being used diffreently now. The most obvious observation is the personnel grouping, using John Wall and the likes of Otto Porter and running Burke of screens with Marrcin Gortat. Less floor time with Marcus Thornton who shoots first:

Porter is being used as the screener as he sets multiple ones on the strong side for Marcus Thornton. It's a good action because he's the best offensive player on the floor with the second unit and will draw the help and attention as the Nets anticipate he's going to get the shot somehow. When Porter cuts, it forces Justin Hamilton to hesitate just a bit while his man, Smith, shifts to get the pass or an open 18-footer. 

Smith dribble pitches to Burke and does with his screen what bigs such as Cody Zeller and Al Horford tend to do which is behind over to get an additional bump on the trailer (Spencer Dinwiddie) to make recovery impossible. By the letter of the rule, that's an illegal screen but Wizards' players have been victimized by it repeeatedly and it goes uncalled. 

Burke goes off the ball and gets it back as he runs a two-man game with Smith, gets the switch with Brook Lopez defending him. Burke uses a hesitation move, gets to the baseline and then uses the rim to get separation for the reverse. This is how Burke plays best. 

Burke can spot up in transition while Wall pushes, draws the defense which is always going to load up on him, to get space for a corner three. 

A simple screen-and-roll option with Gortat gets Burke a favorable swtich. He has to be decisive in how to attack and drives hard at Lopez's feet to create separation and is able to pull up and get off the shot before the contest.

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John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

The Wizards in recent years have made a habit of trying to speak things into existence and then not having them actually exist. They have talked the talk and then sometimes haven't walked the walk.

A few instances come to mind, including Bradley Beal saying of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers that "they didn't want to see us" in the playoffs. Beal also said in November that the Washington was the best team in the East, just hours before James scored 57 points in the Wizards' building.

John Wall has made similar proclomations in the past, usually about himself, including how he is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Now, these statements were all relatively normal for professional athletes who pride themselves in always feeling like they are the best player on the floor or the field. It's part of the mindset that makes them who they are.

But when those statements are made and then not backed up, they can be tough to defend, and especially for a Wizards team which last season seemed to overlook the lesser teams and suffered a down year because of it.

Wall insists all that is about to change. In his 1-on-1 interview with Chris Miller on our Wizards Tipoff podcast, Wall said the message this year will be much different, much more muted than it has been in the past.

"We want to go out with a different mindset and a different focus. We're not trying to go in and think we're a team that has already established something and got respect from people. We have to earn that respect and that means going out and competing every night against the good teams or the bad teams," he said.

That doesn't mean Wall isn't confident. His belief in himself hasn't wavered and, in fact, he may believe in his team more now than ever. That's because he is happy with the offseason the front office has produced.

They signed Dwight Howard and Jeff Green in free agency, traded for Austin Rivers and drafted Troy Brown, Jr. in the first round. All should help the Wizards improve between Howard representing an upgrade at starting center and the others providing much-needed depth.

When Wall was asked by Chris if this is the most complete team he has played with in Washington, Wall left no doubts.

"Yeah, for sure. I definitely think so," he said. "I think it gives us the opportunity where we don't have to play as many minutes. That's the key. At the end of the year, you kind of fall short because you're fatigued. Nobody uses that as an excuse. You play and try to get into the best shape possible. But if you're playing 24 minutes, the whole half, and then 24 minutes and the whole half, you kind of get tired at some point. I think those guys can take a little of the burden and pressure off of us at times."

Listen to Wall's full 1-on-1 interview on the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

When asked at his introductory press conference for how he will fit on the Wizards' roster from a basketball perspective, guard Austin Rivers didn't first cite his three-point shooting, his ability to affect games scoring off the bench or his speed to run the floor with John Wall and Bradley Beal. The first thing he point to was his defense.

That may have surprised some people out there as Rivers has long been known for his scoring ability and not so much his skills on the other end. It's not that he can't play defense, it's just that most of the highlights he's produced over the years have been due to his high-flying finishes at the rim and wicked pull-up jumper from three-point range.

Defense, though, is something Rivers takes pride in and he hopes to continue developing as a defender in Washington.

"With how much Brad and John have to do every night, for them to not have to always guard the best guard on the other team, that's something I can come in here and do. Try to bring that competitive spirit and be one of the defenders on the team," Rivers said.

Rivers' defensive ability has produced some controversy among Wizards fans and media members on social media. Some insist he does not bring value on that end of the floor, while some numbers suggest he does have some defensive potential.

Last season, Rivers averaged a career-high 1.2 steals per game. He was tied for fifth on the Clippers in defensive win shares.

However, his 113 defensive rating was his worst since 2013-14. It was an outlier on the Clippers and not in the good way. He also ranked nowhere near the top of the league in deflections or contested three-point shots, two hustle stats that guys like Wall and Beal fair well in.

Rivers points to two attributes that he believes make him a strong perimeter defender. One is his versatility and the other you could call scrappiness.

"On defense [the Wizards] can switch one through three or one through four. I think that gives us a lot of dangerous options," he said.

As for his scrappiness, Rivers says it comes from the early days of his career.

"I had to figure out ways to be effective without [a jumpshot] and that's how I became a defender. I guess everything happens for a reason, right? I'm happy I did have those early career struggles because it made me find a side of me that I didn't do [early on]. Because I promise you I didn't play any defense at Duke," he said.

The last line drew laughter from those gathered at his introductory press conference. Rivers insists that he now takes that end of the floor very seriously. The Wizards certainly hope he can back up his words.

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