WASHINGTON -- Wednesday's practice for the Washington Wizards had to be adjusted due to a slew of injuries in their frontcourt. Without enough centers to run a full 5-on-5 scrimmage, head coach Scott Brooks led a walkthrough of plays, highlighting key areas he would like them to focus on as they prepare to go with smaller lineups out of necessity.
One key focus was screen-setting. Without Thomas Bryant for at least the next three weeks, the Wizards have to make up for his absence, as he currently ranks sixth in the NBA in screen assists per game. The Wizards fall in the middle of the league in ball screens and off-screens, but Bryant sets the majority of them.
At the moment, they are also missing Moe Wagner (ankle) and Ian Mahinmi (Achilles), so all three of their natural centers are hurt. That means rookie Rui Hachimura has to fill the void, as he did on Tuesday in the Wizards' loss to the Magic.
And that means Hachimura, though he's undersized for the five-spot at 6-foot-8, is going to have to set some screens.
"If he's the five, he has to hold the screens and be a screen scorer," Brooks said. "He's going to be able to learn that. I think he's going to pick it up tomorrow. I think today he saw it and our coaches are going to show him some film on it and I think you're going to see some improvement there."
Brooks added that Hachimura struggled setting screens against Orlando. As Brooks described it, Hachimura was slipping out of his picks too early because that's what he's used to as a forward.
Hachimura is third on the Wizards in screen assists behind Bryant and Wagner, but he says he hasn't been a primary screen-setter since high school. Now he has to help his teammates get free by putting a body on the biggest and quickets athletes in the world.
"I have to be physical offensively," he said.
For the Wizards, these big men injuries are coming at a bad time. On Thursday night, they will see the Philadelphia 76ers, who play an unusually big lineup. Hachimura will have to set screens on players who are larger than him. Even Philly's point guard, Ben Simmons, is 6-foot-10.
Hachimura will also have to deal with center Joel Embiid on defense. Embiid may be the best center in basketball and also the most physically imposing.
At 7-feet and 280 pounds, he is a force down low. He leads the NBA in post-ups per game (7.9) and has a knack for getting to the free throw line. He is fifth in the NBA in free throw attempts this season (8.3/g) and was second in the league last year (10.1/g).
Foul trouble is one way the Wizards' frontcourt situation could get even worse. It's something to keep in mind as Hachimura awaits arguably the toughest challenge of his career so far.
"As young players, you've gotta expect the unexpected. Nobody expected we would have these injuries at the five spot," Brooks said.
"He [eventually] has to guard them all. That's what is going to make him valuable to us long-term, so this is good experience."
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