Harrell for Sixth Man? Wizards make case for awards after 20 games originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
Before the 2021-22 season started, oddsmakers did not hold the Washington Wizards in high esteem. Sportsbooks pegged the Wizards to finish with 34.5 wins after the Russell Westbrook trade. ESPN’s analysts got together and predicted Washington to finish 11th in the Eastern Conference.
Twenty games in, the Wizards are proving everyone wrong. They’re 13-7 and if this current pace continues for the remainder of the season, they’d snag 50 wins for the first time since 1978-79. They’re tied for second place in the East, miles above where anybody expected them to be at this point.
Washington’s surprisingly incredible season thus far can be accredited to a few factors: the ability for a hodgepodge roster to gel so easily, a coach who seems to understand matchups and lineups quite well and individually fantastic performances.
Though there are still 62 games remaining this season, certain Wizards have made clear they deserve to be mentioned in some end-of-year award conversations. Here are a few candidates for Washington and the awards they could win:
Coach of the Year: Wes Unseld Jr.
Wes Unseld Jr. was handed a daunting task when he was hired over the summer: get this team—complete with big personalities and zero experience playing with each other as a unit—to win games. He’s done that, and then some.
General manager Tommy Sheppard and company had their eyes on Unseld Jr. because of his defensive prowess, in addition to his name recognition in the District. Unseld Jr. has delivered on his defensive résumé, leading the Wizards to the league’s 11th-best defensive rating, sixth-best defensive rebound percentage and second-lowest fast break points allowed thus far.
Unseld Jr. has taken this group, unified them, and turned them into an absolute force on both ends of the floor. He deserves his flowers. Among head coaches who took over their current team beginning with this season, Unseld Jr. has led the Wizards to the best record and by some margin.
Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell
If you’ve watched the Wizards this season, you’ve noticed Montrezl Harrell. The undersized (6-foot-7) center has been the catalyst for several Washington wins this year thanks to his roof-bursting tenacity and constant effort for rebounds.
Harrell has already won Sixth Man of the Year once in his career—2020 with the Los Angeles Clippers—for doing basically the same thing he’s done with Washington this season. You can’t help but absolutely love the energy Harrell exhibits when he’s on the floor.
Harrell is fourth in the league in bench scoring and third in rebounds. He also leads all NBA bench players in free throw attempts and field goal percentage (min. 17 minutes per game). Most importantly: Harrell has been consistent. He never takes games, or even plays, off. He will undoubtedly be in the Sixth Man conversation if he keeps this pace up and deservedly so.
Most Improved Player: Deni Avdija
Washington drafted Deni Avdija ninth overall in 2020 with the hope that he’d exhibit some of the qualities on both ends of the floor that he did while playing professionally in Israel. He showed flashes during his rookie year until an injury sidelined him for the end of the season, but nothing consistent or incredible.
This year, Avdija has delivered both of those qualities. Though he’s scoring 0.2 fewer points per game than he did last year, his field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, rebounds and assists are all improved from last year.
And that’s just on the offensive end. What he’s done defensively has been his true calling card.
Avdija’s defense for Washington this season has been a spectacle. His mechanics, from the way he moves his feet to his timing on the post, have shown clear improvement from last season. The man threw the X up on Giannis Antetokounmpo, for Pete’s sake.
"I'm taking it as a challenge. It's fun to see them thinking like 'oh yeah, there he goes, slow feet, tall guy, I'm quicker than him.' But it's not all about that. I'm playing with my heart and I'm doing everything I can to play 100 percent every play on the court,” Avdija said earlier this month.
Executive of the Year: Tommy Sheppard
Sheppard’s Westbrook trade shook the ground when it happened over the summer. Many people thought Washington giving up one of its most popular players this decade was a downgrade. It wasn’t.
Sheppard’s trade, in addition to other offseason acquisitions, have all proven to be crucial to the Wizards’ current success. In trading Westbrook and receiving Dinwiddie, Harrell, Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma, the Wizards improved their age, depth and cap space.
Every struggling team dreams of making deals like that. Sheppard should get recognized for his contribution to Washington’s current tear.
That’s it for the awards that actually exist. Here are some other, made-up awards that other Wizards players would earn if they existed:
The ‘Clutch Gene’ Award: Kyle Kuzma
The ‘Cutest Family’ Award: Bradley Beal
The ‘Best Blocker and Rebounder’ Award: Daniel Gafford
The Underappreciated Award: Aaron Holiday
The Best Hair Award: Corey Kispert