When the Washington Wizards acquired Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a blockbuster trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise continued to undergo a major facelift that left a lot of unknowns this offseason.
A brand new head coach in Wes Unseld Jr. A fresh-faced starting lineup. Six new players.
And yet, in this case, change has most certainly been welcome.
As of Friday, the Wizards sit with the Chicago Bulls atop the Eastern Conference at 8-3. Make no mistake: this isn’t your par-for-the-course, “Bradley Beal carries and the rest fall in line” group in Washington D.C. that we’ve seen so many different iterations of in the past. It’s a team in every sense of the word.
And the fact that it’s come together this cohesively and this expeditiously, for a franchise that retooled its staff and personnel less than three months ago, is incredibly unique.
“I mean it is a different team. Basically, half the roster’s different. So it is remarkable that they’ve kinda pulled together as quickly as they have,” Unseld said prior to Wednesday’s win in Cleveland. “But I give ’em credit. They were around in September, so we didn’t wait ’til the first official day of training camp to say, ‘Hey, let’s start putting in work.’ Those guys were trying to play together, do a small side of [pickup] games, get workouts [in], finding ways to be on the floor and build that chemistry. So it’s paid off for us thus far.”
“We’ve got a bunch of dogs, man,” Kuzma added. “Obviously, me and KCP, we’ve won. We know how to win in this league. Trezz has always been an underdog his whole entire career being a second-round pick and fighting his way through the G League and all the way to being the Sixth Man [of the Year]. But the people here, too — it’s not just us. It’s a collective group. It’s the coaching staff, it’s us, it’s Brad wanting to win big in this league. It’s [Raul] Neto coming in, being a dog for us, being huge. [Daniel Gafford]. It’s everybody. And it’s all about the culture. It’s all about trying to change cultures and just win. Everything’s good when you win.”
These Wizards are gritty and feisty. These Wizards have that dog mentality. These Wizards are going to make you earn it. Most importantly, these Wizards gut it out.
And while it is still a work in progress, when you have a collection of castoffs with something to prove and with a chip on their shoulder, they’re developing an identity of resiliency.
“It’s not something that I really mapped out. I think it’s a byproduct of who we have and their individual situations, but I think they’ve all bought into team success,” Unseld said. “They understand that when the team thrives, the individual stuff will come. They don’t have to press for certain things or play out of character. [They] play team ball, continue to play our brand and our style, and it’ll work out.
“It’s a long season, so it’s easy to say, ‘Hey we figured it out.’ I don’t believe that’s true. We’re playing well right now, which is terrific, but I think it takes time, maybe a year to say, ‘This is who we are, who we have to be.’ But a lot of times, that changes with your personnel. So I think it’s gonna take some time. It’s easy to say who we want to be. It may be a little different as far as how it plays out.”
— NBA (@NBA) November 11, 2021
According to Cleaning the Glass, Washington ranks fourth in the NBA with a 103.6 defensive rating and, as specified by NBA.com, is allowing a league-low 8.5 transition points per game and just a 48.3% Effective Field Goal percentage. It all starts with the players guarding out on the perimeter, and keeping their assignments in front of them.
“I think there’s just an urgency to what we’re doing. I’ve said this many times: it’s never perfect. There’s never a game where you walk away and those were a perfect 48 minutes of defense, but there’s urgency to what we’re doing,” Unseld said. “I think there’s an understanding of how we want to play, how we want to guard concepts and situations. Where we were two weeks ago and where we are now, I think we’re in a better place. And just, that’s having gone through it. You can’t simulate those reps enough, but having played  games now, you have a foundation you can kinda look back on and there’s validity to it.”
Not even a month into the season, Unseld’s trust in Kuzma is already sky-high.
“We saw it early in the preseason and obviously throughout the regular season, is our ability to switch and keep guys in front, and Kyle’s able to do that,” Unseld said. “He’s able to absorb some of the physical contact of those bigger wings, those power forwards, as well as keep those smalls in front, which is valuable. It keeps you out of rotations. And the way he’s rebounded the ball in general has been dynamic. So if we can put those two things together, and you make a couple threes, you’re a pretty good player.”
Coming over from the West Coast, Kuzma believes that he and his Laker teammates are defensively-oriented people, but he gives much of the credit to Unseld as the reason why the Wizards are so connected on the most important end of the floor.
“I think a lot of times in this league, what separates good teams and bad teams is defensive schemes,” Kuzma said. “I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been on good teams, and I’ve been on bad teams throughout the early part of my career. And one of the reasons why I thought we were bad was because we didn’t really have schemes and whatnot. When you come here, first day of training camp, we want to be a top defensive team. Okay, how do we get that?
“Wes puts us in great situations. It’s really no ‘air’ out there. You kinda know what it is. If it’s a step-up, clear-side, we know what to do. Same thing, if we’re in the lock and the trail, we know what to do. That just clears up a lot of thoughts you may have on the court, so you can just play freely and play.”
Kuzma and Beal have logged the most minutes (307) among Washington duos and have allowed 99.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. However, among two-man combinations who have played at least 150 minutes together, Harrell and Deni Avdija carry the top defensive rating (96.0) and net rating (19.1) on the team as a whole.
“I think they did a great job of picking the right head coach, man. As you can see, it’s resulting into our play,” Harrell said. “Coach comes in with a simple game plan, both offensively and defensively, as far as each team goes. But Coach does all the little things that some guys may not want to do at points in time, certain situations. But we’re all bought in and tied in and we support him 100 percent because at the end of the day, it’s a collective group effort. It’s not just the coaches and then the players and then the top staff.
“I think this organization moves at its best when we’re all working together as one, and I think that’s what Coach has done a great a great job of and instilling with everybody — coaching staff, players, even all the way up to the front office with Tommy [Sheppard] and our owner [Ted Leonsis].”
We all know by now that Harrell is a man who’s always going to win the scrap. He uses his upper-body strength and power relentlessly, wearing down frontcourt opponents of all sizes with his multiple efforts. It seems he’s found his footing once again following an unusual situation with the Lakers. Trezz is putting up 18.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per contest on a career-best 70.8% True Shooting percentage, which ranks seventh in the NBA (min. avg. 15 minutes).
He’s establishing quite the rapport with Beal not only in postgame press conferences after wins, but in pick-and-roll situations on the court. According to NBA.com, Harrell is 18-for-30 on passes from Beal. Further, on InStat, Trezz is scoring 1.37 points per possession as a roll man in general and converts on a league-best 88% of his rolls.
Following a hard screen or a slip, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody more aggressive in bolting to the bucket. Add that to his ferocious demeanor on the floor, and Washington has a one-man wrecking crew whose attitude trickles down to the rest of his teammates.
“Trezz plays hard as sh** every night out. You’ve gotta prepare for him,” Kuzma said. “Obviously, an [opposing] team, you’ve got to bring your best every night ’cause he’s coming at you full throttle. He’s crashing the offensive glass every single time, defensive glass. He’s challenging shots. If you give it to him in the pocket and he’s got it in the paint, it’s probably going in the rim. So he’s a beast.
“And that energy, we feed off of it, and it’s important. Especially for 82 games. You can’t bring that type of energy collectively as a group every night. It’s impossible. But when you see guys out there like him doing it every night, it motivates you to play hard.”
Unseld Jr. relays that Harrell’s threat of getting to the rim and the free-throw line both allows Washington to score points and get its defense set, using his 16-point, 5-rebound effort in the first half vs. the Cavaliers as an example.
“His voice carries a lot of weight, but that energy’s contagious. And it’s not just the highlight plays where he’s dunking the ball or he’s the first guy to the floor or he’s getting second possessions. He kinda just galvanizes that group at times,” Unseld said. “Sometimes he does it on his own where he has that stretch in the first half [vs. Cleveland], where he was kinda the lone offense. But it’s also behind the scenes — his voice on the bench, his voice in the locker room. So it’s great to have a guy like that, who’s played in big moments and understands the value of that.”
Number of dunks by the Wizards so far this season…
Montrezl Harrell: 26*
Rest of team: 26
*3rd-most in NBA pic.twitter.com/0iIKgIgorq
— Chase Hughes (@ChaseHughesNBCS) November 8, 2021
Beal is the head of the snake, and newcomer Spencer Dinwiddie has taken quite the load off of him as a ball-handler and initiator. Daniel Gafford is well on his way to becoming a household name. We’ve still yet to see what this all looks like with Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant in the mix.
But with Unseld’s approach, championship experience injected into the building and a number of people who know what it takes to be consistent on a nightly basis, the Wizards might have glued together the right parts to give D.C. a winner.
“I think we have an ‘OK’ chemistry right now. Obviously, it’s still early and young in the season, 11 games in. But that [win in Cleveland] is something that can take ‘OK’ chemistry to good chemistry — finding a way on the road, with the crowd against you, with a big frontcourt like they had,” Kuzma said. “For us to pull out a win like that, that’s a big moral victory obviously outside of winning. But for the morale of the team and to keep guys together and see how we molded into one out there that last five minutes of the game was huge.
“I mean we’re picking up wins, but I think we can take it to another level. I think that’s kinda just really plain and simple. Obviously, I think we have ways to go. We have a couple levels that we can take it up to. That’s just kinda next-level thinking — certain things defensively we can be better at, offensively we can be way, way better. Like I said from the jump, it’s gonna take time. Every regular-season game is rehearsals for the playoffs, and by the time we get to March, April and we figure things out, hopefully we’re on the right side of things. Like I said, we’ve got a long ways to go. Obviously it’s great to be 8-3, but it really doesn’t matter in early November.”
As Kuzma tweeted last week: “Capitol Boys out here.”
Edited by Kristen Butler
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