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By the numbers: Isolating the Wizards' strengths and weaknesses

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USA Today

By the numbers: Isolating the Wizards' strengths and weaknesses

Strength of schedule

Comparisons between the Washington Wizards’ current season and the 2016-17 campaign remain primarily due to the team’s record. This tracking is bizarre.

Washington reached 11-14 with the current three-game winning streak. Lapses within each should prevent anyone from suggesting Washington has completely turned a corner, however. New York nearly rallied from a 16-point deficit late in the fourth quarter Monday while Atlanta scored 45 points in the third quarter.

To buy into this group matching the 49 wins from the 2016-17 squad, the Wizards must add consistency of focus and energy to the equation.

They also need to take advantage of the softness of their 57 remaining games.

According to Tankathon.com, the Wizards have the third-easiest schedule remaining. Their remaining opponents have a combined .472 winning percentage. Yes, the Eastern Conference, while intriguing at the top, sports a deep group of clear lottery-bound teams.

Washington is currently feeding off of those squads. After wins over Brooklyn (8-18), New York (8-17) and Atlanta (5-20), the Wizards play at Cleveland (5-19) Friday.

The Wizards enter Thursday one-half game behind the Hornets for the eighth seed and 3 ½ back of the fourth-seeded Pistons.

In isolation

The ball is moving and the Wizards are making moves in the Eastern Conference standings. This is no coincidence.

Five times this season Washington has finished a game with 29 or more assists. Three of those instances have come in the last six games, including a season-high 35 in Wednesday’s 117-103 road win over the Hawks.

“(The ball movement) was good,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said after Washington’s third win in a row. “The last three or four games, we’ve been doing a much better job of moving the basketball and making shots. Today just continued that play.”

“It was great. This is how we need to play,” said Bradley Beal who had 36 points and eight assists. “We have to play fast and that was easier because we got stops defensively, we were able to get out in transition and get some easy ones. We just continued to move the ball and share it. Everybody was moving tonight and that is the way that we need to play every game.”

Playing this sharing is caring type of hoops consistently would improve the offense. It also might mean running fewer isolation plays. Based on early results, that’s a good thing.

Ahead of the Nov. 30 game at Philadelphia, 76ers coach Brett Brown was asked about the specific offensive challenge the Wizards present with their All-Star backcourt of John Wall and Beal. He immediately noted that Washington runs the second-most isolation plays in the league (The James Harden-Chris Paul-led Rockets easily trump all others).

“When you study them they run the second most isolations in the NBA. Those two feature in a very large majority of that team statistic,” Brown said. “When you admit that, it comes down to the obvious stuff. Can you guard your man?

“There are not many isolations, but it’s deeper than that. Its where are the other teammates. Where does the help come from if you do get beat? … That dynamic with those two guards with that stat on isolation basketball will be a real, real big part of our defensive success or lack thereof tonight.”

What Brown failed to mention is that while Washington runs more isolation plays than 28 teams in the league, the Wizards only rank 21st (0.80) in points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. The Rockets, rode an iso-heavy offense all the way to the Western Conference Finals last season, average 1.12 points per isolation possession, second in the league behind the Bucks (1.16).

Philadelphia cruised past Washington 123-98 as Wall and Beal combined to shoot 10 of 28 from the field.

Since that loss, the Wizards have strung together three quality outings.

The addition of Tomas Satoransky into the starting lineup at the start of the current uptick put another true passer on the court from the jump. Wall and Beal are certainly willing passers and Otto Porter plays with a team-first mentality almost to a fault at times. That lineup combination over time could perhaps lead to Brooks’ pushing for a more free-flowing approach. Getting defensive stops and running the court would do that as well.

There’s no place like the road

Brooks recently mentioned the oddness of Kelly Oubre Jr.’s home-road shooting splits. Things have become far weirder.

Over his last four road games, Oubre 24 of 49 (48.9) overall is 12 of 23 (52.2%) on 3-pointers. Those numbers boosted his overall road percentages to 46.3 and 38.9 respectively. If only Oubre could play his home games outside of Capital One Arena, where he shoots 37.1 percent from the field and 20.5 percent from beyond the arc.

One frustrating aspect of Oubre’s game remains no matter where he plays: Poor shot selection.

He finished 5 of 10 overall and 2 of 5 on 3-pointers against Atlanta despite some rough time and place choices in the fourth quarter. Oubre was the only Washington player that entered the game before the final minute not to record an assist in a game the Wizards set a new season-high. That’s five of the last six the forward has gone without an assist.

Simply focusing on his shooting percentage and points misses the mark with Oubre’s game, especially with free agency looming this summer. He clearly has the athletic tools. Oubre puts in the work. His basketball instincts remain underdeveloped. Better choices on the court would boost his value, keep him high in the rotation, and help those shooting percentages. Maybe even at home, though based on this season’s weirdness, who knows. 

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Why Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant is the next great NBA rivalry

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USA Today Sports

Why Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant is the next great NBA rivalry

Everyone knows the name Zion Williamson. He's grown bigger than college basketball, whether you like it or not.

But the beauty of March is not in the goliaths, but the Davids; a chance to stand on the top pedestal and garner the attention they deserve.

Enter, Ja Morant. A star in his own right and the future rival of Duke phenom Williamson, who just so happened to grab your attention with a triple-double in No. 12 seed Murray State's first round over No. 5 seed Marquette.

Now, I'm not sure whether "Ja vs. Zion" has a nice ring to it, or sounds more like a bad, low-budget superhero movie on SyFy. "As the evil Ruler of All Attention, King Zion tries to hold on to his reign of college basketball, while Ja, the leader of underdogs and hero of The State of Murray, looks to dethrone the mighty ruler and take his place as leader of the Madness of March realm".

Ugh, yeah it's definitely a bad movie title, but also on it's way to being a great rivalry in the NBA. 

Zion will likely go No. 1 overall, and Ja should be No. 2.

From highlight dunks like this...

Or quotes from NBA MVP's like this from Steph Curry..

That transition to the NBA isn't going to be difficult at all for him

Morant is showing this isn't just a one-star NBA Draft coming this summer.

First, think of the storylines. "Superstar from basketball powerhouse against a small-school player with a chip on his shoulder".  That's what made Manning vs. Brady great for years (except for the whole small school thing, just replace that with "late round draft pick". You get the idea).

Imagine these two in the dunk contest next year, rebuilding interest among bored NBA fans. HINT: this is where you insert that wide eyes emoji for extra emphasis.

If "Zion vs. Ja" (okay, it's starting to sound better already) is a matchup of the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks, every game is a comparison of the two. Every matchup is one trying to show up the other. Every postgame interview is about how their new rival played and what it means for their future in the NBA. 

Oh, and FYI: Zion and Ja played on the same AAU team.

Can't make this stuff up folks. 

Neither Williamson nor Morant is afraid of the spotlight. In fact, they both embrace it. They also embrace the responsibilities that come with it, which is why the two seem destined for stardom at the next level.

Right now "Zion vs. Ja" or "Ja vs. Zion" may sound like a bad movie title, but soon it'll be the next great rivalry in the NBA, and it has all the storylines to guarantee it being a box office hit. 

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Breaking down the etiquette, strategy and rules of the NBA jersey exchange

Breaking down the etiquette, strategy and rules of the NBA jersey exchange

WASHINGTON -- Turns out that NBA old guys Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter are trendsetters.

While jersey exchanges frequently happen in various sports leagues, the swapping of sweaty pullovers never really caught on with the NBA set before this season. 

“I’m not always big on that," Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal said.

The specific holdup varies. There are status factors, but for the too cool players, it's often the asking.   

“We need to do [exchanges] a little bit more, but I’m not really big fans of anybody like that,” now-Thunder forward Markieff Morris said earlier this season before the Wizards traded him in February.

The rules all changed when Wade - who comes to DC for a 7 PM tipoff on Saturday - announced his retirement before the season and most assumed 40-somethings Nowitzki and Carter would follow. Morris, Beal and others went from signing fan memorabilia by the truckload for fans to become obsessed with garnering some precious artifacts of their own. 

Nothing store bought. No manufactured moments. The opportunity they dreamed of as wide-eyed kids existed, but for a limited time only. The clock for them to shoot their shot with these future Hall of Famers was winding down.

Morris never felt the jersey exchange compulsion beyond his basketball-playing twin brother, Marcus, and former Kansas teammate Thomas Robinson. Then came the Nov. 6 meeting at Dallas, Washington’s first game of the season against Nowitzki’s Mavericks. 

“Of course, I like people’s game, but I’m not going to run and get their jersey right now,” Morris told NBC Sports Washington. “Somebody I grew watching and idolizing like Dirk, I need that, and it’s your last year.” 

Beal put aside ego by asking his basketball idol for the shirt off his back when Washington visited the Miami Heat in January.

“I did that with D-Wade because he’s a legend in my eyes and someone I try to mimic," Beal told NBC Sports Washington. "This is his last year, so I didn’t even know if I was going to have an opportunity to play him again. I was like, ‘I got to have it.’”

The mechanics of the jersey swap vary, but primarily the players handle the transaction. Mitchell, a second-year player and one of the league’s rising stars, texted Wade the night before their game to make sure they were set. Trae Young, the Hawks confident rookie, showed some nerves by texting Wade twice before gameday.

Others handle business face to face, no intermediaries.

"No, you do it, man to man,” Morris explained. “You got to go before the game or during the game and say, ‘Yo, jersey swap at the end of the game?’ I assume it works like that. It’s a brotherhood, so I wouldn’t think I have to send my person over there to ask. That doesn’t even sound right. If someone tried doing that to me, I’d say no.”

Beal’s on-court positioning helped facilitate his moment with Wade.

“I was standing right next to him at the end of the game. It was convenient for me because I usually don’t do that,” Beal said. “Not saying I don’t want, but guys that are like superstars, I try not to do it.”

The rush is twofold. Catch your idol before he hits retirement, but also beat your teammates to the punch. 

“Kind of a first come, first serve deal,” Beal said.

Load management for the Hawks’ equipment crew means bringing extra jerseys for each road game because of numerous requests for Carter’s gear even though the 42-year-old, like Nowitzki, has not announced a retirement plan. Yet in the era with specialized jerseys, there might be just a single backup available. 

“I made sure I was the first one to ask [Wade],” Mitchell said after Utah's Monday night win over the Wizards. “It means so much to my career…just to have that memorable moment. He wrote a message on it. It’s pretty special. Got it framed … He’s a legend. Always will be. He’s a Hall of Famer. He’s done so much for guys my size. [Showed] we don’t have to be 6’7” to make it in this league if you’re tough and locked in.”

Morris recognized his Washington teammates were sleeping on the future Hall of Famer in Dallas. 

“Nobody was thinking about getting Dirk’s jersey. People don’t really be like I need a Dirk Nowitzki jersey, but I was like I really need a Dirk Nowitzki jersey,” Morris said.

Nowitzki didn’t play in the game, but was courtside when the players returned from the locker room for second half warm-ups. Morris eyed his prize. 

“Everybody kind of knows each other a little bit. You call guys by their first name. Been playing against Dirk for eight years now,” Morris said. “Kind of know him a little bit, so I’m not scared to be like, ‘Yo, Dirk.’ I’m just like, ‘Big fella. I know this is your last year. I’ve always been a big fan of you.’”

Nowitzki, the ninth overall selection the 2008 NBA Draft, learned this year he has many fans among his playing peers. The NBA's sixth all-time leading scorer exchanged jerseys with Wade, a foe in two NBA Finals, and other players during the season.

“It’s humbling,” Nowitzki said when the Mavericks stopped in Washington this month. “It shows you that some guys accept and respect what you have done for this league for two decades.”

Protocol remains unclear for some just entering the league. 

Warriors center Jordan Bell put in a friend request before Golden State visited Washington in January that stumped Wizards rookie Troy Brown Jr.

“I was like ‘I don’t know how it works yet. Bro, I just got here,’” Brown said. “’You’re asking me to give away a jersey.’”

They never did make the handoff, but the self-aware 19-year-old Brown later sounded like a veteran on the topic.

“Of course, there are people that you idolize growing up, but I haven’t really thought about that,” Brown said of asking another player for a jersey. “They usually give them to [established] guys that have been in the league for a couple of years. I’m still trying to get myself together.”

It’s doubtful Brown’s figured it out already, but another shot at Wade comes Saturday in his final game at Washington. 

The clock hasn’t indeed begun ticking on the jersey Brown desires most.

“LeBron’s for sure,” Brown said. “I think he’s got a couple of more years to go before he gets [everyone asking].”

Hopefully by then, Brown learns the rules. Maybe at that point, jersey exchanges among NBA players become rather common even when not including legends of the game. That's assuming they admit they're in fact big fans like that.

Seeing as Nowitzki and Carter have yet to announce they’re retiring, every player might have another shot.

“If I come back,” Nowitzki said, “we’ll do it all over again.”

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