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NBA PM: Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?

Can Paul Pierce provide the leadership, toughness and production necessary to turn the Wizards into an East contender?

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Can Pierce Turn Wizards Into a Contender?

Washington Wizards shooting guard Garrett Temple was just trying to give his veteran teammate Paul Pierce a compliment. After Pierce hit consecutive fade-away jumpers late in the Wizards’ game against the Orlando Magic to seal the victory (Washington’s first of the year), Temple was impressed, but may have used the wrong words to express that.

“It brought back memories,” Temple said of Pierce’s daggers. “I was just thinking about what he used to do with the Celtics, and that’s why we brought him in. Like he said when he hit that shot in Toronto [during last year’s playoff series], ‘That’s why they brought me here!’ That’s why he’s here. To settle us down and get us in a good spot in those situations. I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Minutes later, Pierce heard about Temple’s comments and was asked if he turned back the clock to hit those key shots.

“Turned back the clock to when?” Pierce asked, half joking and half annoyed. “I never went nowhere. I never went nowhere; I’ve still been here. I was doing that last year, the year before and the year before that.”

This 30-minute stretch shows exactly what the Wizards are getting with Pierce: poise in all situations, veteran leadership, clutch shots and unwavering confidence. The 37-year-old inked a two-year, $11 million deal with Washington over the summer because he felt they could be a contender in the Eastern Conference. Now, he’s doing everything in his power to help the Wizards take the next step and become an elite team.

Washington is a young squad that is extremely hungry after experiencing a little bit of success in last year’s postseason. Last year’s group managed to win 44 games, which was good for fifth place in the East. Washington defeated the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, before being eliminated by the Indiana Pacers in six games.

Pierce has experienced just about everything a player can in the NBA, so he’s an amazing resource for these young Wizards. Pierce said that he’ll do his best to offer his help throughout the course of the season.

“I just try to keep everyone focused,” Pierce said. “I want them to understand what it’s going to take when you’re coming off of a loss and in a back-to-back situation. That’s what I’m going to give them all year long. If we’re going to try to take that next step from what the Wizards did a year ago, then it’s got to be mental. It’s got to be every night, consistency in practices and in games.”

Every player in the locker room has a ton of respect for Pierce and listens intently when he dispenses wisdom.

“[He brings] a lot of great leadership,” Wizards point guard John Wall said of Pierce. “He’s a veteran presence, someone who knows what it takes to win championships. He has a tough mentality. He’s someone who knows what you need to do in order to win in this league. The level he’s been on is what us [other] guys are trying to get to. It’s just that veteran leadership and presence and the humbleness to want to win and compete.”

“He’s a great leader off the court,” Temple said of Pierce. “I didn’t know what his leadership skills were like, but he’s a great leader off the court. He understands [the importance of] having a routine, being a professional, being positive, sticking together as a team and understanding it’s a long road in an 82-game season. He knows if you stick together, good things can happen.”

Wall has been picking Pierce’s brain, just as he does with his coaches, because he knows that the veteran has a lot of knowledge to offer. But Pierce isn’t just a strong locker room presence, as he remains a significant contributor on the court. Through three games, Pierce is averaging 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 steals in 26.7 minutes. He has been productive (and come up big when Washington needed him most), but he admits he is still trying to get acclimated with his new team and develop chemistry alongside his new running mates.

“As each game and each practice goes along, and as we continue to build our chemistry, I’m definitely [getting more comfortable],” Pierce said. “We have to find ways to win when we have chemistry issues at times, because we’re still getting to know each other, but [those] are the type of games we just have to grind out.”

The 10-time All-Star seems to know his role in Washington. He’s the first one to point over to Wall and describe him as “our All-Star and our best player.” He identifies the trio of Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat as “our leading guys.” He says that he’s there to improve the Wizards’ supporting cast, and be one of several options that the team has in late-game situations.

“It’s never scripted, but that’s what I’m capable of giving this team, another guy that they can go to in crucial situations,” Pierce said. “I think we have a number of guys that they could go to, with me being one them. That’s what I can give us.”

One of the biggest things that Pierce has stressed since joining Washington is the importance of a balanced attack. Pierce has won a championship and has seen that it takes contributions – as well as sacrifices – from everyone on the team to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. The Boston Celtics’ 2008 title team didn’t feature a single 20-points-per-game scorer. Instead, they had Pierce, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo each averaging double-digits (ranging from 10.6 points to 19.6 points) and spreading the wealth around.

“It’s got to come from a number of guys,” Pierce said. “That’s what we have to pride ourselves on this year. We have to have a great balance. Some nights it’s going to be one guy who goes off for 20 or 30 points, but on most nights we’ll try to get a balanced scoring [attack] by moving the ball around and sharing opportunities.”

Washington is 2-1 and while Pierce is happy with the wins, he has said several times that the Wizards still need to find their identity in order to realize their full potential as a team.

“We want to be a team that holds teams to like 42 percent or 41 percent on field goals, keep them under 100 points, out-rebound them by a large margin,” Pierce said. “It’s good to win, but we’re still trying to find that.”

Pierce’s toughness, leadership and production should only help the Wizards find that desired identity. Once they do that, don’t be surprised if Washington emerges as one of the East’s top teams. That’s exactly what Pierce was banking on when he inked his deal with the Wizards this summer, and he’s confident that the franchise has what it takes to go on a deep postseason run as early as this year.

Bounce Brothers Ready for Lift Off

The Minnesota Timberwolves have one of the NBA’s most athletic young tandems in rookies Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. Both players are high flyers and have what it takes to compete in the NBA’s dunk contest. The 19-year-olds, who have dubbed themselves the Bounce Brothers, have a ton of potential and could be franchise cornerstones for Minnesota going forward.

Wiggins was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft and LaVine was the No. 13 selection. Both players are having a lot of fun as they make the transition from college to the NBA.

“It’s fun; we’re all young and we played against each other growing up, so it’s good that we get to go out now and go on this journey together,” Wiggins said. “I’m comfortable here. The teammates show nothing but love. They’re great, great to be around, and the coaches are great to be around too. They push me every day. … It’s just crazy, from my first time stepping off the plane, people were greeting me at the airport, walking [me] home, walking [me] back to the hotel that I stayed in for the first couple days. It’s all just a big excitement coming here.”

“It’s going by so fast, it’s really felt surreal,” LaVine said. “I had my dream come true within the last six months. I was just in high school, I just graduated high school, so things went fast but I’m ready to just put on for this city and do great things. I feel like I’m a hard worker, and I’m ready to get in the gym and work.”

Wiggins has been starting for the Wolves, providing solid production on both ends of the floor but his stats don’t jump off of the page. LaVine has only appeared in one game, and it was in limited minutes. It’s clear that Wiggins is more NBA-ready than LaVine, who is extremely raw and was viewed as more of a project since he needs to develop and settle into a position. However, both players have worked extremely hard and earned the respect of their teammates.

“They’re students of the game,” Kevin Martin said of Wiggins and LaVine. “They understand where this organization views them four or five years from now and they’re making the steps in that direction to get confidence of Flip and his staff to get to that point.”

LaVine watches a ton of film, even of bad games, which impressed his veteran teammates. Head coach Flip Saunders jokes that LaVine is the only player upset when practice is canceled, because he wants to be in the gym all day, every day. LaVine has also made an effort to bulk up after seeing NBA bodies and realizing how strong pro players are.

Wiggins has also been putting in work. Right after he was traded to Minnesota in the offseason, he started training at the team’s facility to learn the system and develop chemistry with his teammates. Wiggins enters the NBA with superstar expectations and his teammates are buying into the hype.

“He’s a great player and the most important thing is he wants to learn and he’s willing to learn,” Ricky Rubio said of Wiggins. “He’s going to be great in this league.”

“I put a lot of responsibility on myself,” Wiggins added. “You have to believe that you can be the best and do what you can do before anyone else can believe it for you.”

Wiggins and LaVine both find themselves in the same situation as rookies in Minnesota with a ton of potential, but their paths to the NBA were completely different. Wiggins has been hyped up for years, since a mixtape labeling him as the best 14-year-old in the world surfaced. He was one of the most famous high school players in recent memory, and was a household name before he had committed to a college.

LaVine, on the other hand, was ranked the 44th-best player in the class entering high school and very few people thought he could be a one-and-done player entering his lone collegiate season at UCLA. However, he played well for the Bruins and started to get some attention. Still, he had to perform well in workouts and interviews in order to climb into the lottery.

“[Going back to] high school, I haven’t been a highly touted player,” LaVine said. “I’ve gone through all the national camps and different things like that and I feel like I’ve proven myself, but it just seems like I always just had to get over that edge to change people’s mind. So if I got to keep changing people’s minds, I’m fine with that. I like making my doubters eat their words. From high school, I was known as a scorer; I averaged about 29 in high school my senior year. Then going to college, I had a different role – coming off the bench, being able to show a little bit more of my athleticism. Now, with Coach Saunders, I feel like I’m in the best situation out of everybody. I’m so thankful. I love that dude to death, man. I have all my trust in him, it’s just great.”

“It’s been a big learning curve,” Wiggins said. “Flip’s a great coach. Every day we practice, I’m getting better. Every day, I’m learning more stuff. He had all the rookies in before everyone else, because the vets already know the system and they know the plays. They’re very intelligent when it comes to the game of basketball, and for a rookie it’s more of a learning curve.”

Wiggins and LaVine will get more comfortable as the season progresses and we’ll get a glimpse of what the future may hold for these two. Veteran Thaddeus Young has seen them in practice every day, and was so confident in Minnesota’s talent that he told Basketball Insiders the team could compete for a playoff spot as early as this season. Whether that’s realistic remains to be seen, but the Wolves certainly seem headed in the right direction and have put their future in the hands of two exciting, high-flying teenagers who will be a lot of fun to watch develop.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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