Is it time for the Washington Wizards to free Isaac Bonga?

After falling out of the rotation, Isaac Bonga might be back in the mix with the Washington Wizards.

Isaac Bonga began the season as the Washington Wizards’ starting small forward. He started the first seven games of the season, and through six games, was averaging 23 minutes per contest. Then, things changed.

Bonga was getting his minutes largely because of injuries at the small forward position. Troy Brown Jr missed the first three games of the season. C.J. Miles missed the first five. Once they came back, though, Bonga saw his minutes dwindle.

By the sixth game of the season, Bonga was down from his 23-minute average to just ten minutes. By the seventh game, Bonga was getting DNP’d. By the eighth game of the season, Troy Brown had taken his starting spot for good. Brown has started at the three in every game since.

After playing in all of the Wizards’ first seven games, Bonga played in just two of the next seven, barely logging over three minutes between the two games. Bonga was even sent down to the G-League to join the Capital City Go-Go for a brief period in November.

Is Bonga Back?

Now, things seem to be ticking back up for Bonga. Unfortunately, that could have a lot to do with C.J. Miles’ recent injury. Miles missed the Wizards recent road trip out west with a wrist injury. Bonga played in every single game.

Not just that, he played more and more as the road trip went on. Against the Denver Nuggets and Phoenix Suns, Bonga played a combined 10 minutes and had just one shot attempt. Against the Los Angeles Lakers (Bonga’s former team) he finished with six points, three rebounds, and two assists in 17 minutes.

Against the LA Clippers, Bonga did most of his damage in the second half, playing 16 of his 19 minutes after the break. When the Wizards took the floor for the second half, Brooks sent out the starters with one change: Brown was on the bench and Bonga was in. Bonga finished with another modest stat line of seven points, three rebounds, three assists, one steal.

Even with additional minutes, Bonga didn’t fill up the stat sheet in LA, and he probably won’t on most nights. That’s just not his game. Bonga has yet to score in double-figures as an NBA player. However, he’s not out there for scoring. We all know the Wizards have plenty of that already.

Despite his lack of draw-dropping box scores, there is a reason to keep Bonga on the floor regardless of how healthy (or not healthy) the rest of the small forwards are.

In Dire Need of Defense

The Wizards are a historically atrocious defensive team. They have given up 150+ points in regulation twice this season. They rank dead last in the NBA in defensive rating and points allowed per game. It’s how they lose games while scoring 120 points or more, something they’ve already done five times this season.

According to Scott Brooks, it’s Bonga’s defense that ultimately got him the nod for the second half against the Clippers.  Per Fred Katz of The Athletic, Brooks had this to say about the lineup change after the loss:

We needed a spark. I don’t know what we’re going to do going forward, but we need a defender, and that’s what (Bonga) does. That’s how he’s wired.

With Miles’ status still unknown, the Wizards will need to lean on Bonga, much like they did to start the season. But if/when Miles returns, that shouldn’t force Bonga back to the bench.

Given his post-game remarks, Brooks seems to consider Bonga the Wizards’ best on-ball defender. Or at least one of the best.  And he isn’t wrong. Bonga generally helps improve the defense. Per NBA.com, the Wizards’ defensive rating is more than ten points better with Bonga is on the floor, dropping from 117.3 down to 106.6.

All that said, there’s a reason Bonga hasn’t seen the floor consistently. He is lacking on the offensive end, and although he has all the length in the world to be an agitator on defense (6’8 with a 7’0 wingspan), he is far from a finished product. Then again, he is just 20 years old. The Wizards need to see more of Bonga to figure out what they have. Between last season with the Lakers and this season with the Wizards, Bonga has played less than 320 total minutes of NBA action.

Given that the Wizards got Bonga from LA for next to nothing, what do they have to lose by trying to develop him during a season void of real win/loss expectations?

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An investment in Bonga could pay off in the long run. He certainly won’t turn the Wizards into a defensive juggernaut overnight, and there will be games where Bonga looks as young and inexperienced as he is. But with a bit of polishing, the Wizards might have another treasure in a cast-off Laker. And if he does turn out to be a top-tier stopper in the NBA, well those are invaluable.

Honestly, though, what’s the worst that could happen? The Wizards are already giving up more than 120 points per game. They have to try something new. It’s time to free Isaac Bonga! Luckily, it sounds like Brooks is on board.

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