Wizards

Wizards

CAPITAL ONE ARENA -- Wizards managing partner Ted Leonsis recalls a day in the fall of 2018 when he and other members of the team's board of governors were meeting in a room that overlooked the practice court at St. Elizabeth's in Southeast. Through the glass window, he noticed Thomas Bryant, one of the organization's newest players, sprinting back on defense like a madman while practicing with the Capital City Go-Go.

Bryant was so demonstrative that Leonsis remembers his partners and members of the coaching staff laughing. It was clear to Leonsis that Bryant knew he was watching and was going out of his way to be on his best behavior.

Bryant, though, didn't need to exaggerate much. He only knows one gear when he's on the court and that is going full-out with the enthusiasm of a man who genuinely loves playing the game of basketball.

Leonsis wants more of that. He wants more players like Bryant, ones who are coachable and aren't jaded by NBA life.

In fact, that is the main directive from Leonsis for next season. He has had no problem in the past specifying his expectations, previously stating publicly goals of winning 50 games and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals. Last year, he made headlines for coupling those desires with a "no excuses" command.

But for the 2019-20 season, Leonsis is not putting a number on the wins or a stage in the playoffs he wants the Wizards to reach. This time, what he wants will be harder to define by numbers.

 

"Next year, I just want a team that progresses, that is really hard to play against and that fans fall in love with because of their hard work and effort," he told NBC Sports Washington.

That sounds like a simple goal, but it is something the Wizards haven't had enough of. In recent years as they chased deep playoff runs, they surrounded their core with proven veterans. As they fell short of their goals, the Wizards got older and more expensive.

They brought in too many players who had been satiated by large contracts and long careers. They weren't hungry and were harder to coach.

One Wizards veteran last season irked the coaching staff at a morning shootaround with a dismissive quip. When asked why he was just going through the motions, he replied: "I get paid for what I do at 7 p.m."

It is commonly believed that veterans are supposed to set the tone in a locker room, but sometimes benefits can be had the other way around. Sometimes youth and the eagerness of unproven players can rub off on more established ones who have lost their edge or need a push. 

There will be a learning curve for the Wizards with the youth they now have on their roster. Including Bryant, they now have seven players at Age 22 or younger. That is a lot of guys who could still be playing in college.

But the Wizards feel they are bringing in the right types of young players, ones that will show maturity in their work ethic and their on-court demeanor. Rui Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr. and Admiral Schofield are perfect examples. They are smart, tough and determined.

General manager Tommy Sheppard believes they all can help establish and grow into a new culture for the Wizards.

"We have a lot of young players, there's no question," Sheppard explained. "But those players; guess what? They're coachable, they're hard-working, they're high-character guys," 

"I think if we imprint them from Day One on what we're about - playing hard at both ends - I think fans will be really excited to see these players compete every night."

Competing every night has not been a trademark of the Wizards the past two seasons, particularly this past year when they bottomed out to a 32-50 record. Their biggest downfalls were defense and rebounding, two areas of the game that reflect effort and will. Though they still lack rim protection and proven shutdown defenders, the Wizards could make strides in those parts of the game this season simply by giving a more consistent effort. 

It could also pay long-term dividends in free agency. This offseason has shown that good players want to play for good organizations. The Clippers and Nets were the biggest winners in free agency in part because of their style of play.

Ultimately, success in the NBA comes from having the best players. But as the Wizards retool their roster and build parts of their organization from the ground up, they are seeking what they believe are the right type of players, ones that will improve their culture and that fans will appreciate, even if it means more losses than wins in the short-term.

 

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