Morant, Giannis will give Wizards important test


WASHINGTON -- Last week, when asked about his team's highly-ranked three-point defense, Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. did something any hard-to-please head coach would do. He deflected the praise and pointed out an area he thought his team needed to improve. He mentioned points in the paint.

Entering Friday night's game against the Grizzlies, the Wizards remain a work in progress in that regard. They are allowing the third-most paint points (51.3/g) of any team and the third-highest field goal percentage within five feet of the rim (67.1%). That is despite having talented rim-protector Daniel Gafford and a defense that ranks a respectable 16th in the league in efficiency.

If Unseld Jr. thinks it is a problem now, his team is about to get a unique test. Well, several tests actually, right in a row. They play Memphis on Friday, which is tied for fourth in paint points (with the Wizards at 49.5/g), then the Bucks who have Giannis Antetokounmpo and then the Cavaliers, who rank seventh in paint points (49.1/g).

Ja Morant of the Grizzlies is tied for first in the NBA in points in the paint (16.3/g) despite being a guard, which is nothing short of remarkable. Antetokounmpo of the Bucks is fourth (14.0/g) and Jarrett Allen of the Cavs is 11th (11.8/g). 

The Wizards will have to defend the paint in ways unique to what they have seen this season thus far. Morant is a lighting strike waiting to happen from the perimeter, who despite standing 6-foot-3 is fully capable of embarrassing opponents who stand nearly a foot taller than him. Antetokounmpo is perhaps the most physically dominant player in the league and Allen leads a Cavs team that collectively puts a lot of pressure on the rim.


Unseld Jr. was asked about the challenge awaiting his team when it comes to Morant, in particular.

"We have to get in the gaps early because otherwise you're generating too many stunts which opens up the three. His ability to get downhill and into the paint is unparalleled. It's really difficult to guard. You've gotta be in the right position at the start of possessions otherwise you're kind of chasing your tail," he said.

If Morant reaches the basket, which he usually does many times per game, Gafford will be tasked with stopping him as the last line of defense. He's 10th in the NBA in blocks per game (1.8) and would rank higher if his early-season small sample size hadn't been skewed by a quad injury, which forced him to leave a win over the Celtics.

Gafford said Morant is "among the best guards in the league" and believes the Wizards will need to be ready for his high-energy style of play. But Gafford will also be tested in another way by this upcoming stretch of the Wizards' schedule. They have a deep and versatile roster, but they are also relatively small at the center position compared to the rest of the league.

At 6-foot-10, Gafford is tied with a few of his teammates as the tallest player on the Wizards. Washington, though, is one of only six NBA teams without a player at 6-foot-11 or taller. Among 30 NBA teams, 14 of them have at least one seven-footer.

The Grizzlies have Steven Adams (7-feet) and Jaren Jackson Jr. (6-foot-11). The Bucks have Antetokounmpo (6-foot-11) and Brook Lopez (7-feet) and the Cavs have Allen (6-foot-11) and Evan Mobley (7-feet). They also have Lauri Markannen (7-feet), though he's in Covid-19 protocol, and Tacko Fall (7-foot-5).

The Wizards may be small (in NBA terms) at center, but they have a size advantage at other positions. Spencer Dinwiddie is big for a point guard at 6-foot-5 and they have a host of wing players who stand around 6-foot-10 like Deni Avdija, Kyle Kuzma and Davis Bertans (currently injured).

Given that, there may be ways for Unseld Jr. and the Wizards to utilize their size at other spots. There is also the possibility they force other teams to go small. The Warriors of yesteryear famously lit the league on fire with their Death Lineup and, though that is an extreme example, some of the same principles could apply if the Wizards make it a track meet where opposing big men simply can't keep up or if they force teams to switch into mismatches.

"The biggest advantage I think in downsizing would be our mobility and versatility of having three or four guys to handle plays that can stretch the defense out with our shooting," Unseld Jr. said. "At times, you're at a deficit on the glass which is a big part of it. It's an area, obviously, that Steven Adams excels in."


Gafford said the key to overcoming a size disadvantage is "setting the tone with physicality" and "making those guys run." Basically, initiate contact and counter strength with speed.

The Wizards are still learning what they have in a roster that was revamped over the offseason and is being guided by a new coaching staff. The road ahead looks like a difficult one given how things have gone so far, but that's why they play the games.