The Washington Wizards’ Player Development Dilemma

Washington Wizards Scott Brooks (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Washington Wizards Scott Brooks (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Scott Brooks, like Randy Wittman before him, shows deference to stopgap veterans over the messier side of player development. When will the Washington Wizards let the young guys run?

Randy Wittman was furious. The former Washington Wizards head coach jumped up from his chair, slammed his hands together to signal a timeout, snatched a clipboard from assistant coach Don Newman, and shook his head disappointingly as he walked toward the paint to conference with his staff.

Meanwhile, then second-year forward Jan Vesely trotted to his spot on the bench, visibly perplexed and frustrated by his failed dunk attempt.

"“As a coach, you never want to go into a game saying, ‘I wonder what so-and-so is going to give me.’ I want to know what I’m going to get from him,” Wittman preached during the post-game press conference. The frustrated coach continued, “Then, that’s when you start moving in a positive direction. It’s important to see who develops consistency. It’s based on your play. I watch you play. You might not have 13 points, but your play is pretty good. Consistency is important.”"

Wittman quickly grew skeptical of the 2011 No. 6 overall selection’s ability to consistently perform, grow, and help the Wizards escape 20-win futility.

Vesely was drafted to partner with future All-Star John Wall and help create an exciting brand of basketball in the District. The athletic, fast, jumpy big never stood a chance. Not with Wittman. Not with the Wizards.

The old-school coach gave inexperienced players short leashes. Wittman’s doghouse after poor play was full. Young guys including Vesely, Trevor Booker (2010 first round, No. 23 selection), Chris Singleton (2011 first round, No. 18 selection), and Shelvin Mack (2011 second round, No. 34 selection) struggled to see consistent rotational minutes throughout their rookie and sophomore campaigns.

While the young crew during the Wittman era may never have turned out to be anything more than nice role players (Booker and Mack continued to have productive bench careers on multiple rosters), playing sporadic minutes in D.C. certainly did them no favors for their futures.

There seemed to be no time for growing pains in Washington. Wittman and general manager Ernie Grunfeld instead invited veterans A.J. Price, Cartier Martin, and Emeka Okafor to take the extra minutes needed to win 29 games in the 2012-2013 season. None would play for the Wizards in 2013-2014 campaign.

Vesely would play only 11.8 minutes per game in 2012-2013, down from 18.9 minutes per game during his rookie season (2011-2012). The seven-footer didn’t have much of a chance to develop chemistry with Wall, a theoretically perfect open-court running mate. Wittman never nurtured this relationship. The stud from the Czech Republic played more than 30 minutes only six times in 141 games with Washington. He simply never got to run.

Many would say Vesely was simply a bust, a waste; but that explanation is too easy. The lottery pick air-balled free throws and often looked lost in offensive sets, but a better narrative is that Wittman and the Wizards never supported, trusted, or developed him properly. Vesely grew increasingly passive when he did get few minutes and visibly unconfident in his place in the NBA.

The big man has since moved onto a prolific European career, winning titles, rings, and accolades with Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce. Vesely’s realized potential is on full display in the EuroLeague.

“Air Wolf” never had a chance to support and share in Wall’s, “Wolf Season.” That’s too bad.

A more recent example of a wasted rookie season is Kelly Oubre Jr. (2015 first round, No. 15 selection). Oubre played only 10.7 minutes per game under Wittman’s watch in 2015-2016. This time, Wittman preferred Kris Humphries and Jared Dudley minutes over the promising rookie’s development in a non-playoff season.

The Wizards’ inability to realize the potentials of their draft picks and young talent suggests they need to improve their player development department. Wall and fellow All-Star Bradley Beal are success stories, but their natural talent levels would ensure success anywhere. What about the Veselys?

After Wittman was fired, Scott Brooks entered as a “player’s coach” with a track record of managing and developing young talent with the Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, to name a few). Would this change the Wizards’ development culture and effectively nurture what they’ve got?

Different Coach, Same Story

Brooks was furious. The current Wizards head coach jumped up from his chair, slammed his hands together to signal a timeout, snatched his clipboard from head trainer Jeff Bangs, and repeatedly shook his head as he walked toward the paint to conference with his staff.

Meanwhile, rookie Troy Brown Jr. trotted back to his spot on the bench and discussed his two consecutive turnovers with Beal.

Brooks has regularly provided excuses for why Brown sees little action on a NBA court. Mistakes are never explicitly mentioned, but the rookie’s ups and downs are clearly difficult for Brooks to stomach.

"“He has to get healthy and once he gets healthy, we’ve got the G League right in our backyard and we have practice and try to fit him into as many games as I possibly can,” Brooks said. “This year for a lot of rookies, it’s a learning experience and he has to pick things up as much as he can on the practice floor, in the film room. The minutes are slim. I can’t say he’ll play more minutes. Right now, we have guys ahead of him.”"

Once Grunfeld dealt Otto Porter to the Chicago Bulls for Jabari Parker and Bobby Portis, Brooks has opted to play the two newcomers significant minutes. Add in Wesley Johnson from the New Orleans Pelicans, and the veterans have essentially blocked Brown’s ability to see the court for high-stress, significant minutes.

Moreover, the deal for Portis has also relegated promising second-year center Thomas Bryant to the bench. Brooks is now starting Portis at center and playing him 27.4 minutes per game. Since essentially all of the traditional power forward’s minutes are actually coming at the five position (98 percent of the time), Bryant’s minutes have been squeezed. Bryant has played more than 20 minutes only once since Portis arrived.

Brooks, like Wittman, shows deference to respectable mediocrity (or stable losing) over the messy side of development.

Brown averages 7.5 minutes per game in only 35 appearances. If this trend continues, Brown will be a functional rookie next season, too.

Bryant, even serving as a starting center for 43 of his 52 games, still only averages 19.2 minutes per game. The kid with a high-motor, enthusiasm, and passion to feed his teammates can’t even get in long runs.

Lottery picks Luka Doncic and Trae Young joined underwhelming (or terrible) teams in the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks, respectively. Doncic plays 32.2 minutes per game while Young plays 31 minutes per game. Some nights are beautiful. Some nights are ugly. All nights are purposeful. Both players are receiving full seasons of sustained playing time and experiencing full seasons of development.

The Wizards provide rookies/young guys with limited minutes. Some nights are beautiful. Some nights are ugly. Most nights are full of garbage minutes in D.C.

Johnson (16.3 minutes per game since joining the team) might help the Wizards reach 30 wins. The likes of Bryant and Brown, however, could help create a sustained culture of winning in the District.

Next. Wizards: Needed changes to the rotation lead to win over Wolves. dark

If the Wizards give them a chance.