The 2013-14 Washington Wizards were a talented team that showed signs of how good this up-and-coming squad could be in the coming years, but how much of their success was due to the fact that they played in a historically bad Eastern Conference? It’s hard to say, but one thing that cannot be questioned is this team is determined to disprove any of their remaining doubters moving forward.
While Trevor Ariza left as a free agent, the Wizards re-signed key contributors Marcin Gortat and Andre Miller and added additional veteran depth in Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair. These moves, coupled with internal development from their young core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. among others has Washington looking a playoff team for the second-straight season.
Rice, in particular, seems poised for a bigger role after a successful summer league in which he led all players with 25 points per game and won the tournament’s MVP award. Although this may not have been the path that Rice expected his basketball career to take when he left Georgia Tech after three seasons back in 2012, the 23-year-old has paid his dues through several stints in the NBA’s D-League, most recently during a successful stretch with the Iowa Energy. He also played sparingly (to put it nicely) over 11 games for last year’s Wizards squad, but simply wasn’t able to find much success at the NBA level.
While expectations of upcoming NBA success probably shouldn’t be based too heavily upon the results of summer league, Rice’s overall improvement can’t go without being acknowledged. Not only did Rice take home the MVP trophy and put the ball in the basket, he also found a way to make plays throughout all facets of the game. Put simply, this is not the same player who was drafted with the 35th pick in the second round back in 2013. This version of Rice looked far more polished, in control and determined to make an impression on those that may have written him off at an early stage.
Beal, the team’s starting shooting guard and a budding star, obviously doesn’t have anything to worry about, but if Rice is able to maintain this momentum and continue developing for these Wizards, Washington could have one of the deeper young cores in the league over the next couple years.
Another one of the young and relatively unproven players that turned heads this summer was second-year small forward Porter. His rookie campaign was marred by various injuries that slowed his transition from the college game. The subsequent inconsistent play that comes along with multiple injuries as a rookie – especially one playing behind the recently-departed Ariza in the midst of his career-year – also played a role in his delayed development, but if his summer league results are any indication of things to come, it appears Porter went into the offseason with the right approach.
“Making the playoffs last year did help us,” Porter said. “We know what it takes, and we know the pressure and the work that you have to do to get to that level. Now, with me, Brad [Beal], John [Wall], [Marcin] Gortat and now Paul [Pierce], we now feel like we have an opportunity to go back to the playoffs.”
Porter said that his coaches asked him to work on his mid-range game for the summer, and it was evident throughout the tournament. Not only did Porter look physically stronger and more certain of himself while on the court during his second Las Vegas Summer League, he really showed flashes of the versatility we saw from him while at Georgetown, averaging 19 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists over the six games.
The still slender, 6’8 small forward could work himself into a major contributing role at some point this season, regardless of the Wizards’ recent signing of Pierce. It is important to remember that Pierce (while a future Hall of Famer) is a guy that you want down the stretch of close games and for a playoff run, but Washington still needs Porter to play significant minutes to ease the burden on Pierce and continue to develop since he’s the team’s long-term answer at small forward. Porter and Rice are excited to learn from Pierce during the upcoming season.
“The first thing I thought of was some of the things he can teach me,” Rice said of Pierce. “He’s just so crafty. Not the fastest. Not the strongest, but he’s just so crafty and he gets it done consistently.”
Pierce will serve as a leader and mentor for the entire group, but for these two swingmen in particular. The 36-year-old former Finals MVP has experienced just about every situation imaginable over the course of his 16 years in the league, so his advice could prove to be invaluable to both Rice and Porter, even as Pierce plays some minutes as a reserve power forward at this point in his career.
Again, stats in mid-July games can be considered somewhat meaningless, but it is more about taking into account the player’s comfort level and signs of overall development when judging true progress. In Porter’s case, it is clear the 21-year-old is finding his way. Aside from an improved overall on-court presence, it was also apparent Porter has worked on his ball handling and decision making in both scoring and playmaking situations.
“Sometimes, Wall wants to get out and run the floor too.” Porter said. “So by me doing that, he can run the floor and get a couple fast break layups. Same thing with Brad, if he gets the rebound he can push the ball too. So you just have a lot of different options.”
Porter is exactly right in terms of how vital it is to have several options and multifaceted players on the court at all times, and it absolutely appears that both he and Rice could be ready to step into larger roles for the Wizards. If core guys like Wall, Beal, Gortat and Nene stay healthy, the Wizards should have no problem qualifying for the playoffs once again even in an improved Eastern Conference. If the young players like Porter and Rice can continue their development while blending their contributions with veterans like Pierce, Miller, and Humphries, this could be one of the top teams in the East for years to come.
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