Friday, December 5, 2008

Wizards have a few bright spots

There aren't many positive things to look at when a team is 3-13 like the Wizards are, but the team has actually shown signs of improvement over the last few weeks -- even if it's only brought wins over the Warriors and Nets. Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler are both producing; Jamison (20.9 points, 9.3 rebounds) is putting up solid numbers and shooting 49.8 percent from the field, and Butler (21.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists) is scoring a point better per game through 16 games this season. But both Jamison and Butler are expected to produce, so that's really no surprise.

The biggest surprise, though, has been rookie JaVale McGee. Many figured McGee was either a poor pick by the Wizards or at least a project who would take a few years to develop. Instead, McGee supplanted Etan Thomas in the starting lineup after only a handful of games and hasn't looked back. By no means is McGee done improving, but he's given the Wizards a lot more than just about anyone expected.

Out of all rookies, McGee currently ranks 19th in minutes per game (19.4), 15th in points (8.1), 16th in field goal percentage (48.6), ninth in rebounding (5.2), and fourth in blocks (1.2) -- not bad for a guy who many thought would sit the bench for the entire season.

Besides McGee's hustle and energy, the best thing about him is that he obviously has so much room to improve. Most of his buckets right now come off of alley oops or dunks on fast breaks. Wizards' fans can only imagine what will happen when he starts to develop both his offensive and defensive games. McGee, who turns 21 in January, could be the center the Wizards need to compliment Haywood when he returns.

Four other young players on the Wizards have also shown their potential: Nick Young (23), Andray Blatche (22), Dominic McGuire (23), and Dee Brown (24).

Young, in his second season, is scoring 11.8 points per game, 4.3 more than last season, and he's shooting 46.7 percent from the field. Out of all NBA Sophomores, Young ranks eighth in points and 14th in efficiency. Even though he comes off of the bench, Young is third on the Wizards in scoring. If DeShawn Stevenson continues to shoot 32.9 percent from the field, Young's minutes should increase, especially in crunch time.

This season, which happens to be Blatche's fourth, may be the one where Blatche finally starts to realize his role in the league. His numbers so far this season aren't really better than last year's -- 8.0 points per game compared to 7.5 last season -- but he's also playing about three fewer minutes per game. McGee's emergence has taken some of those minutes away from Blatche, but so has Blatche's own failure to significantly improve his conditioning.

Just by watching Wizards' games, fans can see that Blatche has been hustling a bit more and taking better shots. He still settles for his jumper a little too often and usually commits one boneheaded turnover per game, but his +/- number of +15 is third-best on the team.

McGuire and Brown have also performed well. McGuire, who is arguably the team's best defensive player besides Haywood, averages only 10 minutes per game, but his presence is usually felt through his perimeter defense and rebounding ability. McGuire will never be a scorer in the NBA, but he can be someone used to give Butler the occasional breather and to help get key stops late in games or at the end of quarters, which the Wizards struggle doing. And Brown, who was forced into the starting point guard role because of the poor play of Juan Dixon and an injury to Antonio Daniels, has looked much more comfortable over the last few games. Averaging 2.4 points, 2.1 assists, and 1.9 rebounds in 14.9 minutes per game, Brown isn't going to scare anyone offensively. But he has caused some turnovers with his defense and given the Wizards a few baskets on fast break situations.

As much as I admire Daniels (4.8 points, 3.6 assists, 1.7 rebounds, 22 minutes) and his leadership on the floor, if he's not healthy or able to keep point guards in front of him on defense, Brown may be the best option for backup point guard whenever Gilbert Arenas returns to the lineup this season.

One more thing: I'm tired of seeing the veterans get priority over the younger players in the fourth quarter. While Arenas was out last year, playing Daniels and Stevenson together in the backcourt in crunch time was fine because they both played defense and helped get a few stops. Now, neither is really playing much defense, and the team is suffering. A key example was the team's last game against Portland. Brown had a solid first half, but he barely played at all in the second half while Daniels was getting torched on key plays by Steve Blake, a pass-first point guard. For some reason, Brown, who finished the game with a +3 differential, played four fewer minutes than Daniels, who finished -14 from the game. The Wizards are -52 for the season in the first quarter and -30 in the fourth quarter, and a big reason for that is the poor play by Stevenson. It's not surprising that not only are the Wizards +23 in the second quarter when more substitutions are made, but also that the Wizards played possibly their most complete game of the season against New Jersey on Tuesday when Stevenson was actually making his open threes -- imagine that.

I guess I just can't understand how or why Stevenson gets 29 minutes per game.

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