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To Wittman and Wall, Flip Saunders more than just a coach

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To Wittman and Wall, Flip Saunders more than just a coach

A statement from the Wizards already had been released about the death of former coach Flip Saunders, but there's more to it than that. It's an incredibly personal matter for Randy Wittman who replaced him after his firing here in 2011. The same goes for John Wall, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 on a bad team.

"It's just tough. You lose a colleague, but not only a colleague a great friend," Wittman said of Saunders, who was the president for the Minnesota Timberwolves when he succumbed to lymphoma at 60 on Sunday. "He's been there for me many times to pick me up when I'd been fired or something in my family has gone wrong. It's a tough day."

Wittman was on Saunders' staffs during his first stint in Minnesota and followed him to D.C. Saunders was rehired by the Timberwolves one year ago. He also coached them again, a team he led to the West finals in 2004. 

The team Wall played for in his first year under Saunders won just 23 games. 

"It's something you think about. Everybody knows he's been sick much lately and knowing certain things he went through. You're going to think about it," said Wall, who is entering his sixth season that will tip off Wednesday at the Orlando Magic. "It's a good opportunity to play in the same place I got to play my first NBA game with him coaching me. (I'll) definitely think about it.

"He was just a great person. Early on when I first got drafted, after summer league and all that, he took me down to his house for like a week and I stayed in Minnesota. ... (His family) brought me in right away and wanted me to be great, took me through the steps, wanted me to be well. We dealt with some tough times early on but we always stayed positive and told me how good of a player I could be if I just keep working. 

"Coming in as a rookie I didn't want to say as much and I didn't want to do as much. Just him sticking with me and saying, 'This is the same process I went through with Kevin Garnett.' ... Trying to build my confidence. As a player he wanted me to excel. At times when I was having a lot of turnovers and going to fast, he could've been a coach who said, 'We're going to bench him. We're going to sit him down.' He let me play through my mistakes and try to learn."

RELATED: Blatche shares heartache, regret in wake of Flip Saunders' death

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Dwight Howard improving, but status still unknown entering Wizards' season opener

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Dwight Howard improving, but status still unknown entering Wizards' season opener

Dwight Howard may play in the Wizards' regular-season opener on Thursday night against the Miami Heat, but the team will not know until the day of the game and likely won't announce the decision either way until head coach Scott Brooks addresses the media about two hours before tipoff.

Howard only has three practices under his belt but has made significant progress throughout this week after missing all five of the team's preseason games due to a strain in his piriformis muscle.

Head coach Scott Brooks said Howard has looked good in those three practices but has a lot of missed time to make up for.

"I think he's definitely winded at times, but that's part of it," Brooks said.

Brooks added that Howard is not getting the same lift when jumping that he's used to. Howard, 32, is used to playing above the rim and his vertical leap is an important part of his game.

The Wizards play their first two games at home, the second on Saturday against the Raptors. They then embark on a Western Conference road trip beginning with the Blazers on Monday.

Brooks said Howard will "definitely" make that trip with the team, which gives a good indication of how close he is to returning to game action. When Howard is ready to play will be left up to the team's medical staff.

If Howard does miss time, the Wizards are expected to rely on his backup Ian Mahinmi as the starting center. Jason Smith would then become the No. 2 center on the depth chart, though they could use forwards like Markieff Morris or Jeff Green at the five-spot.

Howard signed a two-year free-agent deal worth $11 million to join the Wizards in July.

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By the numbers: A beyond the box score stat each Wizards player can improve this season

By the numbers: A beyond the box score stat each Wizards player can improve this season

The Wizards kick off their 2018-19 season on Thursday against the Miami Heat, as they look for much better results than they got last year. The Wizards want to push for 50 wins and get past the second round of the playoffs and in order to do so, will need to improve in a variety of ways.

Here is a look at some stats that go beyond the box score that each Wizards rotation player could improve upon...

John Wall, PG, 1.8 contested threes per game

Bradley Beal is one of the best in the business at contesting three-pointers, at least when it comes to the frequency of closeouts. He was ninth in the NBA last season in the category with 4.1 per game and that was down from 4.4 the year before, when he placed fourth. Wall, on the other hand, has generally averaged less than half of Beal's output. 

Some of that can be explained by the fact Wall is usually guarding the primary ball-handler, while Beal is asked to defend a shooting guard and shooting guards generally shoot a lot of threes. But if Wall could improve in how many closeouts he gets on threes, the Wizards could become one of the best teams at defending the perimeter. They were already good last year at opponents three-point percentage, but could make strides in the amount of threes they allow. Last year they were 12th with 10.2 per game.

Bradley Beal, SG, 30% on pull-up threes

Beal's offensive maturation has been a joy to watch over the years and last season was the All-Star season breakthrough we all expected to arrive someday. But there is still room to grow and for a shooter as good as Beal, he could be better at pull-up threes. Many of the best scorers in the NBA have killer pull-up threes and last year Beal lagged behind, shooting just 30 percent on those plays. 

The good news is that he shot over 37 percent in each of the previous three years. If he gets back up there this season and works it back into his game that now includes an improved attack off the dribble, he will be incredibly hard to stop.

Otto Porter Jr., SF - 0.1 charges drawn per game

Porter does so many things well and is one of the more underrated players in the league. But no one in the Wizards' rotation took fewer charges than Porter. Now, that's easier said than done when LeBron James is barreling down the lane. But small forwards can be some of the most effective charge-takers on the floor because they often operate in the midrange and can step out of traffic to confront guards. Just look at Shane Battier's career.

Markieff Morris, PF, 1.5 screen assists per game

Morris didn't have a ton of opportunities to rack up screen assists last season as he was often playing alongside Marcin Gortat, who was especially good at setting screens and played a central part of the pick-and-roll. But Morris may play some more at the five spot this year in small-ball sets and executing good screens will be one of the biggest determinants of his success.

Dwight Howard, C, 0.5 fastbreak points per game

This one isn't going to be easy for the big man, who will likely be starting many of the Wizards' fastbreaks by rebounding the ball and dishing it out immediately to Wall or another guard. But Howard could get so many of his points this season simply by hustling up the floor in transition. Since he may have to sacrifice some of the post-up opportunities he enjoyed in Charlotte, fastbreak dunks could help him compensate. He just has to keep up with Wall. Sounds easy, right?

Kelly Oubre Jr., SF, 2.7 deflections per game

This number for Oubre is actually pretty good. He was tied for 24th in the NBA in the category and for a guy who doesn't play super-heavy minutes, that's not bad at all. It's just that Oubre has the potential to be one of the very best players in the game at deflecting passes. He has the wingspan, the quickness, and the instincts to wreak havoc like few players can. This is also one of the stats that GMs will notice when they determine how much to offer him next summer. If he finishes, say, top-five in the NBA, that will be a major selling point.

Ian Mahinmi, C, 15.6 defensive rebound percentage

Mahinmi had the best offensive rebound percentage on the Wizards last year, but was fourth on the defensive end. The Wizards want to be better defensively and play with more pace and Mahinmi will be a big key to accomplishing those goals for the bench. They need to get the ball off the rim and out to Austin Rivers and Tomas Satoransky as soon as possible.

Austin Rivers, SG, 36.3 percent on catch-and-shoot threes

Rivers' 64.2 free throw percentage is his biggest area to improve this season, but since the point of this article is to go beyond the box score, let's go with his catch-and-shoot three-point percentage. Rivers was decent last year and has been better in the past, but his ability to space the floor and fire it away quickly off a pass is going to be important for the Wizards' second unit this season. Last year, Rivers was better at hitting threes off the dribble, but will need to knock down shots on catch-and-shoot plays to reach his ceiling playing alongside Satoransky.

Tomas Satoransky, PG, 0.0 percent on pull-up threes

What was true for Rivers is the opposite for Satoransky and to an extreme degree. Despite leading the NBA with a 52.2 percentage on catch-and-shoot threes, he literally did not make a single attempt from three off the dribble. 

Don't believe that? Check his NBA.com splits page. Satoransky is 6-foot-7 and has a high release point. He is also getting more and more comfortable creating off the dribble. The next step for him as a shooter is to diversify how and where he shoots from on the floor. 

Jeff Green, PF, 1.0 deflections per game

Green was one of the best players on the Cavaliers last season at contesting shots, but ranked 12th on the team in deflections. He has the size and athleticism to get in passing lanes, despite playing much of the time around the rim.

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