Wizards

Wizards

There are legitimate reasons why Jordan McRae has not come close to entering the Wizards rotation this season.

In his most extensive NBA opportunity in months, the two-way contract player clearly demonstrated why he should.

Tuesday’s big picture story was nothing but bad for the playoff-pushing Wizards. The group that strung together quality performances in 2019 laid a stinker. Washington trailed by 25 points and ultimately lost a highly winnable road game against a 10-win Cleveland Cavaliers team playing shorthanded.

The final score, 116-113, does not suggest blowout. Credit the most random 5-man unit possible for the confusion.

Thomas Bryant, Sam Dekker, Troy Brown Jr. and 10-day contract guard Gary Payton II were on the court during the 44-point fourth-quarter along with McRae, the type of stone cold scorer who gets buckets falling out of bed.

Only those unfamiliar with the wing guard’s work for the G-League’s Capital City Go-Go slept on his points-producing potential. McRae leads the G-League in scoring with 29.8 points per game. 

Against Cleveland, McRae did not miss a single shot: 5 of 5 from the field including two 3-pointers while sinking all three of his free throw attempts. That’s 15 points  -- or 11 more than the 27-year-old scored combined for Washington in 10 prior games this season.

It's easy to dismiss this level of bucket-getting. "Garbage time" in the NBA leads to such scenarios, especially against Cleveland's historically porous defense. There's another consideration.

“Opportunity,” a league source texted after McRae’s showing.

The production continued even as tension entered the equation. McRae drained a shot from beyond the arc with 30.7 seconds remaining and then calmly hit two free throws for the game’s final points with 18.5 seconds.

 

Everyone assumed McRae would get his hands on the ball when Washington regained possession with 11.1 seconds. Plan or not, that opportunity never occurred. Brown, in the most significant moment of his rookie season, fumbled the ball away under pressure.

Lessons learned are part of the first-year experience for Brown or any rookie. Ideally, that is the case for the Wizards with McRae.

Nobody suggests he should start or receive heavy minutes or even play with regularity. No real opportunity existed initially since the Wizards opened the season stacked on the wings. Nobody could make that claim after Washington traded Austin Rivers and lost John Wall with a season-ending injury.

Defense and attitude remain primary concerns.

“I think it’s just about [Jordan's] mentality,” Go-Go head coach Jarell Christian told NBC Sports Washington earlier this season. “When he's thrown into a game on the next level, still being able to function without getting the ball every possession.”

Those limitations are noted for the record. That’s also not enough of an excuse. 

It's true not every player can or should enter every game, and Wizards coach Scott Brooks generally keeps a tight 9-10 man rotation. The Wizards' head coach is at time slow to examine alternatives within the rotation.

It took injuries last season to get Tomas Satoransky, Washington’s current starting point guard, into the playing mix. Another starter, Bryant, did emerge until Dwight Howard’s second injury stint this season. Both exceeded expectations and provided a needed jolt.

McRae, who scored 54 points against Maine this season, watched from the Wizards bench or from a distance with the Go-Go regardless. At one point, the Wizards bypassed McRae for guard Ron Baker, a 10-day contract signee with the desired hustle and a busted perimeter shot. The non-scoring threat was released earlier this month.

Unlike kids entering the league, there’s a book on McRae based on 59 games in the league before this season. Washington presumably signed an older player to a two-way contract because it felt McRae could jump in when needed without much runway. Before Tuesday he was barely allowed to take flight.

Brooks kept the unconventional lineup in for the final possession rather than insert 3-point standouts including Bradley Beal. (I go with Beal myself even if just for decoy purposes, but the nod toward momentum is understandable.) The choice expressed a combination of disgust with his starter’s work this night and faith in those that fueled the rally. The latter becomes a one-off if they sit going forward.

Playing without the injured trio of Wall, Markieff Morris and Dwight Howard squash Brooks’ flexibility nightly. At times the coach wisely leans into the strengths available, namely speed and perimeter weapons. Brooks is also relying heavily on mainstays. Beal and 33-year-old Trevor Ariza are averaging 38 minutes per game since Dec. 28.

 

Those minutes are unsustainable over four months. Such usage is necessary if other options do not exist. Sometimes helpful pieces lurk in plain sight and just need a chance to get buckets. 

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