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Prayers answered? Why the Wizards suddenly love 3-pointers


Prayers answered? Why the Wizards suddenly love 3-pointers

When it comes to the Wizards' 3-point shooting, no need for more prayer. Clearly, Randy Wittman has found the religion.

What else can be assumed after a season-long disdain for the deep shots? The gang that loved those maligned long two's because the coach preached take what the defense gives you finally embraced the NBA-wide trend of pop-a-shot from beyond the arc.

Forget embrace. How about dominate. Heading into Wednesday's Game 4 at the Atlanta Hawks, the Washington Wizards are the best 3-point shooting team in the postseason. For real.

They're averaging 10.8 makes per game. That's tied with the splashy Golden State Warriors for most 3-pointers by any team in the playoffs this season.

The thing is, with 198 attempts (24.8 per game; 10th in playoffs), the Wizards have taken 39 fewer 3's than the Warriors.

Washington is shooting an unreal 43.4 percent from beyond the arc. No other team tops 38.5 percent. Golden State sinks 36.3 percent of its tries.

As a reminder, this is the same team that during the regular season ranked 26th in 3-pointers made (6.1) and 27th in attempts (16.8). During Game 4, the Wizards went 10 of 15 from distance in the first half alone.

Though dipping as the regular season progressed, the Wizards sank a healthy 36 percent (ninth). That's not 43.4. By the way, the Warriors topped all teams during the regular season at 39.8.

What gives? Why are the Wizards suddenly the gang that can't help but shoot straight and often from long distance? More to the point, why has Randy Wittman allowed for such behavior?

The tight-lipped coach won't offer game plan specifics. “What we’re able to do in the playoffs is a little bit different," Wittman said before starting the ongoing Eastern Conference semifinal series against Atlanta. "But I'm not getting into how different it is. We’re the same team with the same players that we’ve had most of the year[1].”

No doubt, the gruff Wittman epitomizes an old school coach. The modern man doesn't tell fans to "Pull up the internet." The new school generation certainly knows how to use a low-tech tool like a coaching playboard.

For these reasons and others, Wittman became an easy target for mockery. The supposed lack of interest of in the shot Stephen Curry made Fonzie-level cool played a part.

But we're here to look at why the Wizards are now all about the 3-pointer. Let's start by looking at the final line of Wittman's quote. Specifically, that it focuses on personnel. "We’re the same team with the same players that we’ve had most of the year.” That's where plenty of this newfound love for the 3-ball should focus.

Assuming good health, the standard starting lineup for the regular season and the playoffs is the same: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Paul Pierce, Nene, Marcin Gortat. Nene and Gortat are not perimeter threats. Beal and Pierce are with Wall somewhere in between (He can make the shot, but finished at 30 percent during the season. Wall receives plenty of open looks because opponents concede jumpers in the hopes he won't attack the rim.  Washington is served best when he drives. Period.).

In the playoffs, Otto Porter is playing more than Nene, meaning the Wizards typically have three deep threats on the court instead of two. In addition, there is now more room opens in the lane without a second big man for Wall's drives and kicks (Beal is taking some of the playmaking duties with Wall sidelined with a fractured hand/wrist).

Broaden this out to an eight-man rotation, which is Wittman's basic playoff plan. Ramon Sessions and Drew Gooden, two 3-point threats, round out the group. Again, only Nene and Gortat are not perimeter threats with Wall[2] having a foot in both camps. That means possibly 75 percent (6 of 8) of Washington's main players are potential 3-point options.

Asked Tuesday about the challenge of defending Atlanta's Kyle Korver, Wittman answered by looking at his own team. "If we've got guys out who can make shots on the perimeter when John's in the game, that makes for a difficult decision: Do you come in and stop John or do you stay home on the 3-point shooters? It's a lot harder than if you had non-shooters out there, I'll tell you that."

Before you start screaming "THIS IS WHAT I TWEETED ABOUT ALL SEASON," remember the team from say the middle of February[3] and let's stick with the somewhat crude eight-man theme. Replace Sessions with Andre Miller[4] and Gooden with Kris Humphries. Right there the number of 3-point threats dropped from six to four[5]. Again, that group of four includes a shaky Wall.

The real uptick in 3-point attempts comes from best bets Beal and Pierce. After averaging 8.3 tries during the regular season, the wing threats are at 13.2 in the playoffs. Credit Wall's penetration, the extra shooting help on the court and more aggression from the duo.

Even without Wall for the last three games, the Wizards are still taking plenty[6]; The 29 in Game 3 matched their second-highest total on the season.

However, the change began an earnest when Gooden started playing regular heavy minutes after Kris Humphries suffered a groin injury from Feb. 27 through the end of the season[7]. Washington attempted 18.3 threes per game in that span, 1.5 more than its season average.

During the regular season, the Wizards used between nine and 11 players on most nights. Kevin Seraphin, Garrett Temple and Rasual Butler, one of Washington's best deep threats this season, received those extra minutes, minutes they're not picking up in the playoffs. Constant off days makes the need for rest less of a factor.

Now Pierce is serving as the fourth big man. Since he and Gooden split stretch-four duties, the Wizards always have three shooters (plus Wall or Sessions) on the court except when Gortat and Nene are paired together, which is happening less in the playoffs. Even when Seraphin plays, he's replacing Gortat or Nene and not a shooter.

We can focus on schemes all day, but realize personnel is key. Sure, if we create a roster from a lab that can start from scratch, the Wizards probably has a perimeter shooting big man and a not a roster loaded with interior bigs (add DeJuan Blair to that mix). But they do.

Washington's depth is far greater up front then the backcourt. Wittman played to that. Maybe Gooden should have played more during the season. Then again, Humphries thrived, Seraphin scored, and DGIII doesn't fret about minutes.

By the way, speaking of Gooden, what kind of coach allows a 27 percent career 3-point shooter to dare fire away from deep? The bold Randy Wittman, apparently. Yes, Wittman once told Kevin Love not to take shoot those shots. He now lets Gooden take them[8] even though he never made a playoff 3-pointer until this year.

Believe Wittman or not when he says Pierce didn't play much at stretch-four during the season because he wanted to keep the 37-year-old's minutes down. Just don't believe he's against using power forwards to stretch the court.

When the Warriors, who use Draymond Green as a perimeter big man, visited Washington during the regular season, the coach was asked about the importance of such players in this modern era. "That’s important. I think the more versatility you can have like that, the better.”

For some reason it's seems easier to view Wittman as one of the true luddites on the topic rather than believe he's down with distance with one caveat. Not everyone has the green light.

Wittman recently said, "Do I want Marcin and Nene shooting threes? Makes no sense to us. Drew can stretch out some. DeJuan Blair, do I want him shooting threes? Or Kris Humphries? He's working to get there, but that's not his strength."

This team's strength when healthy is John Wall attacking the paint and the power-packed pair of Nene and Marcin Gortat. Those are advantages for Washington. Only opponents want Wall shooting long jumpers over penetrating. Few teams can match the Wizards muscle inside. 

Perhaps regular season Randy, focusing on his own roster while managing egos and physical aches, didn't focus tons on 3-pointers during the regular season because three of his top five players aren't real threats from deep. Playoff Randy, who no longer has to deal with things like back-to-back games, can get more shooters on the court as he squeezes the rotation.

None of this means Wittman is perfect. Those long shots from inside the arc are constant daggers for the basketball soul. Those regular season substitution patterns were maddening at times. Nobody in the league threw him a Coach of the Year vote this season. There is plenty to pick apart for those who have such desires. Just don't say the man disdains the 3-point shot. No faith is required to believe this. The numbers speak for themselves.

[1] Wittman added the caveat of Will Bynum, who joined the team in March on a 10-day contract.

[2] Neither Will Bynum nor Garrett Temple matches Wall the player, but both are equal or better as percentage 3-point shooters.

[3] The Wizards acquired Sessions on Feb. 19. Humphries' groin on Feb. 25 led to Gooden's re-emergence

[4] Temple averaged more minutes than Miller in part because of injuries to Beal, but Miller was the backup point guard until being swapped for Sessions

[5] Miller is a career 27 percent 3-pointer shooter who doesn't take many. Humphries went 0 for 7 this season.

[6] Without Wall, the ball is with Beal more, who naturally plays on the perimeter. Also fewer easy layups without Wall's setup arguably leads to more shots further from the basket.

[7] Coincidentally, that's the same time frame Gooden entered the rotation last season.

[8] Gooden rewarded the faith by making 39.4 percent over the last two regular seasons. 

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Despite struggles at Oregon, Wizards believe Troy Brown can develop into a good shooter at NBA level

Despite struggles at Oregon, Wizards believe Troy Brown can develop into a good shooter at NBA level

The NBA is so perimeter-oriented these days that often the first statistic cited for a player leaving college for the pros is three-point percentage, regardless of the position. Even big men are expected to knock down threes, for if they can't then there is less space on the floor and like Neil deGrasse Tyson, NBA teams love them some space.

Three-point shooting, however, is not a strength for Wizards' first round pick Troy Brown, Jr., at least not yet. In his lone season at Oregon, he shot just 29.1 percent from long range. Brown can play multiple positions, from point guard to small forward, and shooting is important to be successful at all of them.

Brown and the Wizards, though, are not concerned about his potential to develop an outside shot in the long-term. Brown addressed the issue after his pre-draft workout with the Wizards earlier this month and cited a very specific reason not to worry.

"I don’t think it was my mechanics. I think it was my shot selection this year," he said. "Some of the shots I was taking weren’t very good. It’s about repetition, getting in the gym and putting up shots. I feel like I’ve been doing a good job showcasing that and I feel like a lot of teams are impressed with my shooting."

Brown knocked down plenty of shots in his workout with the Wizards. That helped convince them to select him at No. 15, as they see a guy with potential to become at least a serviceable shooter from long range.

“We’re very confident that we can improve it," head coach Scott Brooks said. "From what I understand, he’s very coachable and he wants to get better. That’s a big part of the step in developing a young player."

Team president Ernie Grunfeld seemed to agree with Brown's personal assessment, that it's not a problem with his mechanics per se. Surely they will tinker with his shot once he gets in their development system. But they don't see the need for a dramatic overhaul.

"He's got a nice stroke," Grunfeld said. "Obviously, when you're a freshman coming up to another level there are different things you have to work on, and we have a really good player development staff and we're going to get him to work right away."

Players of Brown's ilk developing an outside shot at the NBA level is more common than many may think. Just because someone isn't a good shooter in one college season, doesn't mean they will never be able to develop the skill once they mature as a man and a basketball player.

Though Brown's scoring repertoire may seem limited, plenty of players have gone from rags to riches offensively at the professional level. Brown may have to begin his NBA career helping in other ways, like on the defensive end, before his scoring abilities round into form.

Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Jimmy Butler could be seen as a best-case scenario example. He made only 36 threes in three years in college and shot just 35.3 percent as a junior. When he was Brown's age, as a freshman he averaged only 5.6 points, and as an NBA rookie he shot just 18.2 percent from three.

Through years of hard work, Butler turned himself into a 20-point scorer with a respectable outside shot, including a career-beset 37.8 percent from three in the 2014-15 season. Some guys take more time than others. At only 18 years old, Brown has plenty of time to figure it out.


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How drawing up a play in the interview process helped sell the Wizards on Troy Brown

How drawing up a play in the interview process helped sell the Wizards on Troy Brown

While meeting with Oregon's Troy Brown during the pre-draft interview process, evaluators from the Washington Wizards issued him an on-the-spot challenge. Head coach Scott Brooks pulled out a dry-erase clipboard and a pen. He wanted to see Brown draw up a play.

This is a test Brooks has administered before to other players. Some have failed miserably.

"It sounds easy to throw a board at somebody in front of a big group and say 'okay draw a play' and I have seen many plays drawn, and I have seen it where there are not five players on the floor," Brooks said.

That wasn't the case with Brown. He didn't just draw up one play, he drew up several. One in particular came to mind when asked by reporters on Thursday night soon after the Wizards took him 15th overall in the first round of the NBA Draft.

“I think it was a situation where we were down by two or something like that," he said. "It was like a back screen into a slip, and then the fade three and they gave you a lot of various options to cause mismatches on the court for a last minute shot to either go ahead, or even attack the basket for a layup to go into overtime.”

NBC Sports Washington analyst Cory Alexander, a veteran of seven NBA seasons, demonstrated what Brown's play looked like on a whiteboard:

The Xs and Os of basketball flow effortlessly for Brown and Wizards' brass couldn't help but be impressed.

"He really understands the game. I think for a kid that is 18 years old, that is rare but he just has a good feel," Brooks said. 

"We were impressed with his character and the type of person he is and his basketball knowledge," team president Ernie Grunfeld said. "Obviously, like any young player, he has a lot of work to do but he has a lot of the intangibles that I think you need in today's game."

Smarts are a big part of what makes Brown a good basketball player. He isn't a particularly explosive athlete, with a modest 33-inch max vertical leap, but he boasts a 6-foot-10 wingspan and solid agility. Being in the right place at the right time and knowing how to operate an offense helps him make the most of his natural abilities.

Passing is where his basketball IQ comes in handy. Brown is unusually good at distributing for a 6-foot-7 small forward. He averaged 3.2 assists as a freshman at Oregon and nine times had five assists or more in a game.

He can pass like a point guard and the Wizards are excited to implement that skill into their offense.

"Passing is contagious. We’ve been pretty good the last two years and with talking about that how we even want to take another step," Brooks said. "He has the ability to make a lot of quick plays and his ball handling is pretty good for a guy his size. That is one thing I was impressed in his workout last week or when we had him. He is able to take the contact and use his strong frame to get inside the key and make plays.”


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