The Washington Wizards haven’t had the best of starts to the 2023-24 NBA season. They are 2-7 and have one of the worst point differentials in the league. However, there is one silver lining to their performance: rookie Bilal Coulibaly’s ascension.
The 19-year-old Frenchman just had the best game of his short NBA career last night against the Brooklyn Nets. He played the second-most minutes of anyone on the Wizards and finished the game with 20 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals with 8/12 shooting from the field and an impressive 4/7 from three. The Wizards were +2 in his 34 minutes of action.
In fact, the Wizards have consistently been a good team with Coulibaly on the floor. He had a positive +/- in five of the last six games. He has the best on/off numbers of any Wizard, with the team being 25.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than off. Both offense and defense look more solid with the rookie on the floor, and the Wizards outscore their opponents by 4.2 per 100 possessions in his minutes.
Coulibaly’s defense has been as advertised. His length and athleticism bother opponents as he regularly makes plays as a help defender, forcing a turnover on the perimeter or a miss at the rim. He already has eight steals and seven blocks through nine games into the season.
The aspect of Coulibaly’s game that is ahead of schedule is his offensive production. When he came into the league, there were question marks about his shooting and scoring. He was considered a raw offensive player. The defenses have been treating him that way as well, leaving him wide-open at times. Coulibaly has been making them pay. He is 13/31 (42%) so far from behind the three-point line. He is confident and aggressive in taking the open shot.
If he continues to take and make his shots, opposing teams will change their defensive coverage. And if they are guarding him more tightly, this will give him an opportunity to use his speed and athleticism to blow by his defenders and get to the rim.
Despite the hot start, Coulibaly is still a low-usage player. He doesn’t run too many pick-and-rolls or isolations. And that is fine. He needs to perfect his role as a 3-and-D type of player before trying to take the next step into becoming a creator.
Coach Wes Unseld Jr. has to consider starting Coulibaly. Having a dynamic, athletic defender out there with the rest of the starters instead of Tyus Jones or Jordan Poole might create a more balanced, two-way team.
Regardless of how the Wizards perform the rest of the season, watching Coulibaly grow and develop as a player will be a joy to watch all year. The early returns are extremely encouraging.