The Washington Wizards open the 2017-18 regular season Wednesday night at Capital One Arena against the Philadelphia 76ers. There are many thoughts worth stating, predictions worth making. Here are some in this two-part season preview.
John Wall won’t finish among the top 5 in the MVP race
Don’t panic. This isn’t a bad thing – but blame Bradley Beal. The NBA world largely views the Wizards as Wall’s team. That is fair considering, as one team official stated, “how much he’s had to carry the franchise as its face since he entered the league at 19 years old.” This year the Wall-Beal pairing takes on true co-headliner status.
Beal already had several big moments in his career, particularly in the playoffs before last season’s breakout campaign. Healthy after two consecutive campaigns limited by injuries, the wing guard set career-highs in scoring (23.1), assists, field goal and free throw percentage while sinking 40.4 percent of his 3-point tries.
Significant improvement with his ball handling opened up the dribble-drive game and led to a notable rise in free throw attempts. Now the 24-year-old enters this season armed with another weapon.
“It’s really just a confidence booster,” Beal said of entering this season after last year’s success. “Just realizing my potential, what I can be, the type of player I can be.”
Beal cited improved rebounding as a personal goal for the upcoming year.
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Whether he improves on last season’s 3.2 average or not, Beal will make the All-Star team this year for the first time. It just won’t be because several stars landed in the West. Bradley Beal is one of the top 10 guards in the league and among the 20-25 best overall. This isn’t reflected in league-wide rankings. That changes after this season.
Oh, Wall will also have his best season
During the lead up to this season, the four-time All-Star mentioned this was the first summer he dedicated to getting into the best shape of his career. We can quibble with the statement's alternative meaning – what about those other seasons??? -- but the strength and conditioning work looks legit. Whether because the 6’4” guard was coming off two knee procedures, averaged his most minutes since his rookie season or wasn’t in tip-top shape, Wall weakened late in games at times last season
He also had the best season of his seven-year career, matching Beal for team-high scoring honors and finishing second in the league with 10.7 assists. Respect came in the form of his first All-NBA selection and finishing seventh in the league MVP voting.
Now the fitness went next level. Now Wall shouldn’t tire late. Now there's no need to rest defensively. Now let’s see just how good John Wall – and the Wizards -- can be.
“The Wizards have an outside shot at a 2-seed (in the Eastern Conference),” one league source told the Locked on Wizards podcast. “John Wall will have a big year and if Brad is able to match him, [the Wizards] will be dangerous.”
Second unit remains primary concern
Marcin Gortat wasn’t tactful with his criticism of Washington’s bench early last season, but he wasn’t wrong. The incredibly open secret played out painfully for most of the 82-game season and playoffs even with the in-season addition of Bojan Bogdanovic.
Now Kelly Oubre Jr. is a year older, Ian Mahinmi starts the season healthy and free agents additions Mike Scott, Tim Frazier and Jodie Meeks bolster the bench. At the very least, the Frazier and Meeks signings are a clear improvement over the flotsam dubbed as the backcourt last year, right?
“No,” one NBA scout said without hesitation or remorse about the new guards. “It’s no secret with the Wizards. Love the starting [five] and how they fit. Don’t trust their bench. Don’t see much of an upgrade from last year.”
That harsh assessment isn’t universal, but concerns remain. Unless Oubre’ significantly improves his decision-making and handle, there isn’t a player capable of creating his own offense. Meeks adds a 40 percent 3-point threat assuming he can avoid a three-year-long injury bug. They’ll need him on the court because proven shooting options are limited beyond Scott and Jason Smith.
Yet the improvement at point guard seems evident with Frazier, who, unlike last season’s options, can truly run an offense. “Great addition,” another scout said.
This group doesn’t need to dominate. They just can’t vomit all over the court upon entering the game. Last season was a constant “Clean up on Aisle 5” scenario.
This group shouldn’t stink based on the Frazier and Meeks moves alone.
Also factor in basic maturation growth from Oubre and another guard, Tomas Satoransky, who now has the confidence with his shot he lacked upon arriving from overseas last season. Of course, I’ve been fooled by a Wizards bench before.