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Brandon Jennings Will Help Elevate Wizards

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As NBA fans watched the New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves waffle all week on a trade that would have swapped Derrick Rose and Ricky Rubio, it was actually Brandon Jennings that came out as the trade deadline’s big winner. Once waived by the Knicks, Jennings was given the opportunity to join the Washington Wizards and he’ll try to cement his new franchise as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference.

At 39-24, the Wizards currently hold a narrow 1.5 game lead over the Toronto Raptors. But with Kyle Lowry hitting the shelf until around the playoffs, the D.C.-based team has a chance to push the Boston Celtics for the No. 2 seed. Jennings hasn’t participated in the NBA playoffs since 2013, but sports a career average of 14.7 points per game — a major upgrade over Trey Burke, the former backup that has struggled to make an impact all season.

Following his debut against the Raptors last weekend, Jennings told CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Chase Hughes that his change of scenery was much appreciated.

“I’m in the same position I was in New York, but just in a better system for me personally and with a team that actually plays together,” Jennings said.

Needless to say, freeing Jennings from the Knicks and placing him in an offense that’s brimming with talents like John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. at this point in the season is worth celebrating.

During the week of the trade deadline, the Wizards were reportedly chasing Lou Williams, but after he was moved to the Houston Rockets, Washington was left with very few options. Wall has averaged 36.7 minutes per game this season, the sixth-highest mark in the NBA, and is just a minute away from topping the aforementioned Lowry for the highest total in the game. Any scenario in which Wall misses significant game time due to an injury would certainly see the Wizards tumble back down the tight ladder they worked so hard to climb up.

It’s a small sample size, sure, but the Wizards are 0-2 this season when Wall misses a game.

The Wizards can utilize Jennings in a number of game-changing ways as the playoffs appear ahead. Spelling Wall for any amount of time should help the league’s second-leading assister (10.8 to the Rockets’ James Harden at 11.2) stay healthy before the playoff grind. Jennings is a talented scorer, and the Wizards’ second unit has long searched for a playmaker and facilitator on their bench.

In another quote given to Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic, Beal displayed the franchise’s simple expectations for the seven-year veteran:

“We want him to be a little bit more aggressive, look for his shot a little more, but it is always tough coming into a new situation,” Beal said. “You do not want to come up here and look like you are jacking the ball, but we know him as a scorer, we know him as a facilitator, and that is what we need him to do.”

As of today, the Wizards’ starters score a blistering 84.1 points per game, a mark that sets them at second-best in the entire league, only trailing the Golden State Warriors’ stacked lineup at 86.8. Unfortunately, the bench ranks 29th in points per game at 24.4, just ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ barren second unit. Even without much effort, it’s easy to see how the addition of a playmaking guard like Jennings could have some serious playoff implications in the Eastern Conference.

Burke has averaged just 12 minutes per game this season as the backup to Wall, and only scored over 10 points on three occasions. Given his four-straight DNPs following the trade deadline, it appears as if the former Wolverine was never part of head coach Scott Brooks’ long-term solution at the position. Between Tomas Satoransky and Sheldon McClellan, the Wizards were technically covered behind Wall — but having Jennings fall into their laps could give them the firepower to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

For all of his ups and downs with the Knicks, Jennings has proven that he’s a great talent when he receives minutes. Filling in for the injured Rose in early February, Jennings played 42 minutes against the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers and poured in 23 points on 6-for-8 from three-point range, tossing in 10 assists for good measure. While those minutes won’t be available each night behind Wall, the Wizards will feel like they’ve succeeded by adding a microwave shooter for nearly nothing.

Although Jennings’ three-point percentage is nothing to write home about at 33.3 percent, he’s knocked down two or more shots from deep in 18 games this season. In fact, anything Jennings can make from three would be a much-needed lift to a bench unit that makes only 2.3 of them a game, again ranking them near the league’s bottom.

But it isn’t just Jennings’ scoring punch that’ll lift the Wizards. It’s his sneaky-good playmaking that’ll be the ultimate game-changer — enter Bojan Bogdanovic, the Wizards’ other major recent addition. Over this nightmarish season for the Brooklyn Nets, Bogdanovic was often used in isolation and as a last-ditch effort with a dwindling shot clock. Those situations led to some poor shooting nights for Bogdanovic, but his three-point numbers are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

In each of his three full NBA seasons, Bogdanovic has seen over 90 percent of his three-pointers assisted — this season alone, 92.6 percent of his deep shots have come off an assist. In comparison, Klay Thompson, one of the league’s best shooters, has had a career average of 93.3 percent of his three-pointers assisted.

Which is to say, simply, that Bogdanovic does most of his damage off the catch-and-shoot, a skill he’s maintained throughout his career even with the revolving door of point guards the Nets have shuffled on through Brooklyn.

In Washington, Bogdanovic has the likes of Wall and Jennings to set him up in one of the league’s most potent offenses. Even without Jennings worked fully into the rotation yet, Bogdanovic has shown the type of explosive play Wizards’ fans should get used to. Bogdanovic has already gotten off to a hot start, lighting up the Orlando Magic for 27 points on 9-for-12 from deep on Sunday and then followed that up by scoring 29 against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday.

Now, imagine that alongside Jennings on most nights. By running a fluid, organized offense, the outputs of Kelly Oubre Jr., Ian Mahinmi and Markieff Morris should improve without much hand-holding.

In the midst of a jam-packed schedule, Jennings hasn’t found himself on the court all that much yet, but his six assists last night against the Denver Nuggets exhibited the type of dynamic play he’ll add to the Wizards. Soon, Jennings and Bogdanovic could reveal themselves as one of the more powerful bench duos in the entire league — and just in time for the postseason, no less.

With their deadline and waiver wire additions, the Wizards have successfully navigated a difficult tightrope and upgraded their two biggest weaknesses at little to no cost. Washington will gladly let the cheap contracts of both Jennings and Bogdanovic expire this summer as they attempt to re-sign Porter Jr., so the additions are low-risk, high-reward impact players that have already paid off.

Ultimately, these late moves will keep the Wizards happy, healthy, and, hopefully, away from the Cavaliers until the last possible minute.

In a league that is constantly in an arms race to improve at every opportunity, the Wizards have made themselves frontrunners in a conference full of second-bests outside the world champs. Sooner rather than later, the Wizards will have a complete, deep rotation that can rest Wall and feel confident in Jennings’ veteran presence — that alone may help push this Washington team to new heights.

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About Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau

Benny Nadeau is a Boston-based writer in his first year with Basketball Insiders. For the last five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.