Wizards November Silver Linings

November was not kind to the Washington Wizards. They managed a .500 record, yes, but they made no valiant effort to claw back into the playoff picture after a 1-6 start. And those seven wins were punctuated by numerous distractions. The team still sits at 8-13.

Washington hit rock bottom after two brutal losses to the Nets and Blazers in the middle of the month. Those losses caused a furor in DC, with heavy reporting of trade rumors and a practice that apparently included a lot of shouting and one very public “f**k you.”

But through all the turmoil in the nation’s capital, the Wizards have shown some encouraging signs. This column, which I plan to make a monthly tradition, will run through three positives from the month of November.

Kelly Oubre, Driving with Purpose

Kelly Oubre still shoots with so much confidence. That lefty stroke is still poetry in motion. And the ball still doesn’t go in.

The 22-year-old swingman has made just 30.6 percent of his three-point attempts this calendar year. He’s continued hoisting, to his credit. He’s up to 6.7 attempts per 36 minutes this campaign. But expecting Oubre to come off screens ready to fire is wishful thinking right now.

His real growth has come inside the arc. The fourth-year pro was once a liability with the ball in his hands. Scott Brooks would run Oubre off pindowns at the elbow, and while his first dribble would usually crack the paint, his second dribble often carried him to a dead end. The result? Very little playmaking, and far too many bricky floaters and blocked layups:

His passing vision hasn’t improved much, but he’s at least seeing what’s directly in front of him – the little crevices in a defense that a tough screen and a hard cut can create:

That final step to the basket is important. It gets Oubre out of floater range – where he’s a career 33.2 percent shooter – and into the restricted area. Once there, he can use his athleticism to get clean looks against big-bodied rim protectors:

Oubre’s impact hasn’t been as significant as Wiz fans would hope. His minus-2.1 PIPM ranks 399th out of the 444 players to have logged NBA minutes this season. His defensive potential is still just potential. But he’s adding real skills just in time for restricted free agency next summer.

That impending free agency is tough for Washington. The franchise would have to ship out one of Wall, Beal, or Porter to fit Oubre’s upcoming $10-ish million annual deal, which, as of now, will seem like a max to owner Ted Leonsis once you factor in tax payments. The better he plays right now, the more painful retaining him will get.

But for a team with an uncertain future, it’s probably better to have players improve rather than stagnate.

Thomas Bryant, Playing Actual Minutes

Thomas Bryant is 21 and so, so raw. He has fewer than 200 NBA minutes to his name. But 111 of those minutes have come this season, and that’s the important part. He’s playing right now – even starting at center with Dwight Howard injured.

Squint closely enough, and you can see the outline of a rim-running, shot-blocking big who can give you spot minutes now and big minutes down the road. The former Hoosier pairs a 6’10” 250-pound frame and a 7’6” wingspan with plus mobility and legit breakaway speed. He sprints down the floor, dunks it, and sprints back to do his job on defense:

There’s something infectious about the humility and energy of an unheralded young guy fighting for his NBA life. When Bryant’s on the floor, other Wizards have one less target for shouting and finger-pointing. His effort makes his teammates’ lack thereof more conspicuous – and easier to call out.

He is not yet a good player. His mobility gives him the edge over Howard defending against screens, but his rim protection needs work. Faced directly with an onrushing ballhandler, Bryant doesn’t yet have the technique to deter shots. He’ll often drop too deep, hands at his side, skittish about leaving his man:

The youngster’s footwork is awkward there. He’s leaning all the way back and, as a result, can’t close the gap with Jrue Holiday once the Pelicans’ point guard puts his head down and commits to the layup.

And even when Bryant does venture out of the paint, teams can target him with sneaky actions like this “Spain” pick-and-roll:

But the big man is learning something every minute he’s on the court, and he’s doing so without totally sinking the team. Their new starting lineup, which features Otto Porter at the four, needs some size on defense and Bryant’s no-baggage screen-and-roll game on offense. If he can ever learn to shoot threes – he’s jacking up 2.9 per 36 minutes at an 11 percent clip – that’s a cherry on top.

The kid could eventually become a real player, and that’s good news for a team largely devoid of valuable assets on cheap rookie deals.

The Wizards, Coming Back

Washington’s 8-13 record certainly isn’t good, but the team has won three of its last five and six of its last ten.

Two of those wins stick out as encouraging moments. After that tumultuous mid-month practice, the Wizards hosted the scorching hot Los Angeles Clippers. Like clockwork, Doc Rivers’ team went up by as many as 24 in the second quarter, at one point having a win probability of 97 percent.

Washington could’ve folded, but they didn’t. The team roared back with the help of 57 combined points from John Wall and Bradley Beal, and 20 off the bench from Jeff Green. A game that started as a nightmare ended with a second-half flurry.

The Wizards split their next two – a loss to the Raptors and a win against a Pelicans team sans Anthony Davis – before coming up against the Rockets. Despite missing Chris Paul, Houston stormed to a 17-point lead in the first quarter off the back of several transition threes and the beginning of a 54-point James Harden performance.

Harden was unstoppable, but Washington found a way to claw back into the game. Once overtime came around, the Beard was exhausted, and Wall, Beal & co. finished the job.

Comeback wins show a level of resilience that Washington has generally lacked. In most of their blowout losses earlier in the year, the Wizards succumbed to runs by the other team and couldn’t make a run themselves without some irresponsible minute distributions or some unsustainable magic. They’re now getting back into games through consistent play from Wall and Beal, and a bench unit now anchored by the unlikely Markieff Morris-Jeff Green pairing.

Overall, the Wiz have played teams even over the past ten games. They aren’t even close to being “back,” but they are just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot with three-quarters of the season yet to play.

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

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