Wizards

Wizards start Wes Unseld Jr. era with big win over Raptors

Wizards
Montrezl Harrell

The Washington Wizards beat the Toronto Raptors 98-83 in their regular-season opener on Wednesday night. Here are five observations from what went down...

Great start

Given what the Wizards identified in head coach Wes Unseld Jr. when they hired him over the summer, it would be hard to envision a better debut for him than the one he had in Toronto on Wednesday night. He is known for his defense and they played impeccable defense. They wanted more ball movement and balance in their offense. They got that, too.

And all of it came in a blowout win over a Raptors team many expect to be in the playoffs this spring. The Wizards came out swinging, secured a lead by the end of the first quarter and never really looked back. The Wizards led by as many as 29 points, though Toronto did cut it to 10 late in the fourth. Unseld Jr. got his first win as a head coach and the Wizards earned their first season-opening victory since 2017.

While the Wizards looked very good, we don't know exactly what the Raptors are at the moment. Two years ago, they won 53 games but last year they were in the lottery. Was it because they had to relocate temporarily to Tampa? Or, are they going to be bad again this season, now in their first year without Kyle Lowry? Pascal Siakam also did not play. Granted, Rui Hachimura didn't either.

The Wizards themselves looked very good. It will be interesting to see how this season plays out for Toronto and how this first win for Washington can be viewed in retrospect.

 

Defense as-advertised

After an offseason and training camp where plenty was said about the Wizards' defensive potential, they were far from good on that end of the floor in the preseason. They had the worst defensive rating in the NBA and allowed opponents to shoot a jaw-dropping 42.9% from three. But the good news is the preseason doesn't matter and, based on how they played in Wednesday's opener, it feels even more meaningless.

The Wizards played excellent defensively against Toronto. They allowed only 37 points in the first half, the fewest they've surrendered by halftime since 2017. The 83 points they allowed for the game overall were also the fewest in four years. The Raptors shot just 30.9% from the field and shot 7-for-34 (20.6%) from three. It was the lowest field goal percentage against the Wizards since 2002, when Michael Jordan was on the team.

Beyond the numbers, the Wizards just generally played with the type of structure and discipline they were hoping to have under Unseld Jr. It also helped to have Daniel Gafford notching five blocks and two steals. Man, is he good.

Harrell was a force

Wizards fans are going to love Montrezl Harrell. All preseason long he talked about how he had a chip on his shoulder, how he wanted to put what he feels like was a lost year with the Lakers behind him. He's even more motivated than usual and this is a guy whose energy and relentless effort have long been calling cards.

After talking the talk, Harrell backed it up against the Raptors with a monster performance of 22 points, nine rebounds and a block. He had 10 points and seven boards in the first half alone, going 5-for-6 from the field as he just cleaned up around the rim both in the halfcourt and in transition. Harrell did some talking, too. He got a technical foul for chirping at Drake, as the rapper and famous Raptors fan/ambassador was sitting courtside.

Harrell did damage as a rim-runner, on putbacks and in the open court. After one transition dunk set up by an extra pass by Bradley Beal, Harrell bowed to the Wizards' star. He was locked in and helped the second unit add a jolt of energy off the bench. That's what he does, as remember he was the NBA's sixth man of the year just two years ago.

New rotation

The starting lineup Unseld Jr. rolled out in his debut was exactly how we expected it to be with Spencer Dinwiddie, Beal, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Gafford as the first five. The primary second unit was also expected: Aaron Holiday, Raul Neto, Deni Avdija, Davis Bertans and Harrell. 

After that, though, things got interesting as Unseld Jr. used different combinations to mix-and-match his starters with his bench. We saw Avdija instead of Caldwell-Pope with the other four starters. We also saw on numerous occasions Beal and Kuzma in with Neto, Avdija and Harrell. The odd-man-out at this point appears to be rookie Corey Kispert, who didn't play at all.

 

That was predictable based on some comments Unseld Jr. had made in recent weeks and months. And Unseld Jr. said before the game his rotation would be fairly stable for the first few games of the season. Kispert may have to wait his turn despite coming in as a heralded first-round pick.

If only they made threes

The Raptors lost by 15 points and they are lucky it wasn't worse. That's because the Wizards had a rough shooting night from the perimeter, going 5-for-27 from three. Caldwell-Pope went 1-for-5, Beal (23 points) went 1-for-6 and Bertans was 0-for-3. The only guy who made more than one three was Kuzma and he went 2-for-9.

The Wizards should be better at shooting threes this season after struggling in that area last year. And they should also get a pretty big boost in that department in December once Thomas Bryant returns. Still, it will be something to monitor.