• Washington Post

A mostly healthy roster should help the Wizards find their form on defense

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 16, 2022; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; A detailed view of Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura (8) shoes during the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Capital One Arena.

Thirty-four games into the season, the Washington Wizards are nearing a milestone: For the first time, they could have every rotation player available Tuesday against the Philadelphia 76ers.

If forward Deni Avdija’s lower-back soreness abates, Tuesday’s matchup at Capital One Arena would be the first time Coach Wes Unseld Jr. has a full roster to work with.

“I don’t know when was the last time we had a good practice like this where everybody was practicing,” a sweaty Kristaps Porzingis said Monday. “Deni’s still working his way back, but it was competitive today.”

Unseld said Avdija is questionable until the Wizards see how he feels Tuesday morning, but even still, Washington finally has cleared its long-term injury list. Backup forward Rui Hachimura returned Thursday at Utah after missing 16 games with a bone bruise in his right ankle, and backup guard Delon Wright returned Friday at Sacramento after straining his right hamstring Oct. 25.

Now that Hachimura and Wright are healthy, the Wizards (13-21) should benefit most on the defensive end. Wright said after practice Monday that his conditioning is far from where it should be and it will take time to get his rhythm back, but the Wizards will feel his presence.

Washington’s defensive rating is 21st in the NBA; the Wizards are allowing 113.7 points per 100 possessions. They allow opponents to average 49.1 points in the paint per game – a middling 16th – but yield the third-highest opponent three-point percentage at 37.6.

Wright will help in both areas and was the Wizards’ best perimeter defender when he was in shape. Philadelphia (20-12) is the NBA’s second-most-efficient three-point shooting team (38.6 percent); Phoenix (19-15), which visits Wednesday, ranks seventh (37.8 percent). On Monday, Unseld highlighted Wright’s ability to clog the lane.

“We’ve talked about at length his ability to contain one-on-one. Hopefully that helps minimize some of the points in the paint. He’s got great size, hand activity,” Unseld said. “So that helps on the defensive boards. . . . He’s done a pretty good job in a short sample, of course, but he’s a high-level defender.”

Coming off the bench, Hachimura gives the Wizards a bigger body at power forward and provided a needed spark at the end of a long road trip by scoring 21 points in Friday’s win at Sacramento. His performance was part of what Porzingis described as a mind-set shift for the team.

“We just have more firepower,” Porzingis said.

Just as important as Hachimura’s and Wright’s on-court talents is the confidence Washington has with a healthier roster after a 10-game losing streak plagued it for much of December. Porzingis credited a pregame speech from director of player development Alex McLean in Sacramento with jogging the Wizards out of a losing-induced funk.

“We have to,” Porzingis said when asked whether the Wizards need to bring the same swagger they had in Sacramento to Tuesday’s game. “But you cannot fake it, also. Because if you’re losing 10 games in a row, how are you going to have a swagger about you, you know? You can’t. Once you start winning, you keep building that confidence on top of the wins. And two out of our last three, we’ve won. If we can say that, then we have to build on top of those wins and get that confidence up from doing good stuff.”

Wright is on a minutes restriction – he played just over 15 minutes against the Kings – and Unseld said the uptick in playing time will be gradual.

Unseld expects two-way player Jordan Goodwin to remain with the team for a while, rather than be assigned to the G League’s Capital City Go-Go, so the Wizards can avoid overtaxing Wright, starter Monte Morris and the other guards. Goodwin has earned significant minutes as the third-string point guard instead of No. 10 pick Johnny Davis. He has impressed his coaches and teammates with his high-energy and utilitarian game, and he is averaging 7.8 points and 4.2 rebounds in 21.6 minutes.

The 24-year-old has played 26 NBA games – just over half of the allowed 50 for a player on a two-way contract.

“It’s not easy,” Unseld said when asked how the Wizards will go about developing Goodwin with Wright back in action. “Delon I think has shown he’s got the ability to even start in this league. He’s obviously coming off the bench for us, and he’s done a really good job. [Goodwin] has made the most of his minutes.”

For now, Unseld is just happy to have another player as the Wizards attempt to climb back into the Eastern Conference play-in race.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Unseld said of the defense. “We’ve got enough bodies. As we get healthy, whatever that moment [and] whatever the game needs, we’ll go to.”