Wizards

Wizards recent first-rounders face prove-it season

Wizards

From not holding first-round picks, to having to force late-lottery picks into starting roles, to now having them stashed on the bench, the Wizards have certainly changed in the past decade. We've gotten to the latter due to newfound depth on the roster thanks to the efforts of general manager Tommy Sheppard. 

It's a great situation that franchises love to position themselves in while possessing a bonafide star. 

When Washington's front office decided to flip Russell Westbrook and add an overabundance of depth in the offseason, it instantly gave the franchise so many quality players that hadn't been seen since the team's 2017 run to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. But, in contrast, it has made this upcoming season all the more important for the three most recent first-round picks: Rui Hachimura, Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert. 

Each, in their own separate way, now has a reason to emphasize the importance of this season. If not, new head coach Wes Unseld Jr. has plenty of able bodies on the roster to fill those roles. 

First, let's look at the 2019 first-round pick Hachimura. Several pundits and fans alike are split on his capabilities and, honestly, most undervalue him. Ever since he was drafted he's held a spot in the Wizards starting lineup. And for those first two seasons, he's been the third-leading scorer both years. 

Enter Kyle Kuzma who comes in as a player that has talent worthy of a starter. He plays the same position as Hachimura. Many of Kuzma's career stats are comparable to the third-year player and, perhaps most importantly to this team, his 3-point numbers and playmaking abilities on the floor are at a higher level than Hachimura. 

 

It's a small sample size, but Kuzma's numbers are really solid for learning a new system. He is shooting 41.5% from the field and 31.8% from deep, on top of 14.3 points per game and a 26-point outing vs. Indiana. And he's rebounding the ball better than anybody on the roster (13.0 RPG), much needed after the loss of Russell Westbrook. He's also young at 26, meaning he's not going to concede playing time to Hachimura.

Missing time to start the season will obviously hurt Hachimura as he acclimates himself to the new coach and his ways.

Both are capable of being starters on a Bradley Beal-led team. Being the third or fourth-best player would be fitting for both players. Hachimura's biggest advantage, though, is that he is two and a half years younger, and he is still on his rookie deal. The latter changes in two years. 

This upcoming offseason will be an important one for Hachimura because he'll be eligible for a rookie-scale extension. Look no further than the standoff between DeAndre Ayton and the Phoenix Suns this year to see what can transpire. Ayton proved he's a competent starter but falls just short of a true star. Sound familiar? Ayton wanted to earn star-player money but the Suns didn't want to make that commitment. Now if the Suns' center signs a qualifying offer next season, he can enter free agency in 2023 and the Suns will get nothing in return. 

That route - which seemed far-fetched to not give Hachimura an extension just a year ago - may be an option for Washington. Kuzma's contract ends with a player-option, the same year Hachimura would become a restricted free agent (if there's no extension). That would put both players eligible for a payday at the same time. The Wizards could likely keep one but not both given what they would earn in the open market.

But the cheaper rookie-scale extension option is a decision that must be made next summer. Not making a decision also puts the franchise in an Otto Porter Jr. situation once again. 

Like Kuzma and Hachimura, Avdija and Kispert play the same position on the floor so they're 'fighting' with each other for time. But, more significantly, they're both behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the depth chart. Neither are starting, as was the case for Avdija last year. 

The pick of Kispert already should serve as a wake-up in some ways for the Israeli star. While a natural playmaker, Avdija plays an initiation game far different than Kispert. There's no other spot to place him, though, than the three position - the same as Kispert who projects as a lights-out catch-and-shoot threat.

 

The minutes, so far, are concerning. With playoff hopes, the development of young players isn't of the utmost importance. Avdija has the eighth-most minutes at 19 per game (down from sixth in his rookie season). Kispert has played 15 minutes total in two games (11th on the team).

Limited playing time means limited chances to get into a rhythm and gain confidence. That's not the norm for Avdija and Kispert. Throughout their prep careers, they were starters and often one of the top two stars of their team.

And if shots don't fall as the season goes on, there are plenty of players who can fill out the playing time. 

Caldwell-Pope is at a point of his career where the Wizards aren't going to throw an enormous contract his way. Not only are they playing to be his back-up, but potentially to be the one to grow into the position in a few years. One needs to be ready to fill in his shoes when he becomes a free agent in 2023. 

Talented teams typically can afford to build up their mid-to-late lottery picks into their organization over time. Look at the Celtics and the Spurs as great examples. They're buried down the depth chart and not put into positions where they have to succeed for the team to win. Just for Washington, that hasn't been the case as the last three first-round picks (dating back to Troy Brown in 2018) had to make an impact as a starter.

It's a credit to Sheppard but for the three young players, it's also a notice to produce now or get left behind.