- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As the NBA season tips off Tuesday, the Washington Wizards find themselves in an uncommon position: They’re expected to be pretty good, a playoff team at the very least and potentially an Eastern Conference finalist.

Eighty-two regular-season games and two rounds of playoffs must be negotiated in order to reach that point, which would be their deepest postseason trip since 1978-79. But the ability to mention it with a straight face shows the franchise’s strides since making John Wall the No. 1 overall pick in 2010.

Two distinct contingents have transformed the Wizards from laughable losers to formidable foes. First you have the oldheads, whose ranks were bolstered by the acquisition of veteran Paul Pierce, who turned 37 this month. Along with fellow 30-somethings Andre Miller (38), Drew Gooden (33), Nene (32) and Marcin Gortat (30), Pierce gives Washington a wealth of invaluable experience, especially come playoff time.

However, those geezers can’t go far without significant contributions from the young guns.

Everyone in the NBA talks about Wall (24) and his running mate Bradley Beal (21), who form one of the league’s best backcourts.

But a portion of Washington’s success could hinge on the development of another fresh-faced duo, Otto Porter Jr. (21) and Glen Rice Jr. (23).

If their play in the regular season is anything like their play in the NBA summer league, Porter and Rice will give Washington incredible depth and flexibility. Rice was MVP, averaging a league-high 25 points per game and nearly eight rebounds, while Porter was a first-team selection, averaging 19 points per game and nearly six rebounds.

Granted, summer league games are even less reliable than preseason results in indicating what’s going to happen once the real action begins. Most of the players Porter and Rice faced in Las Vegas are no longer employed by NBA teams.

Then again, the list of previous summer league MVPs is replete with players who proceeded to become solid NBA contributors if nothing else, including Wall, Randy Foye, Nate Robinson, Jerryd Bayless, Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard and Jonas Valanciunas. (Only Josh Selby has been a complete bust so far.)

Rice’s development into a key member of the rotation would be gravy. He was drafted in the second round (by Philadelphia in 2013), and no team counts on second-round picks becoming impact players.

Porter is a different story, picked third overall in 2013. Players selected that high are expected to be starters and candidates for an all-NBA team (first, second or third) somewhere down the line.

Regardless of initial projections, both players find themselves in the same position entering this season. They’re trying to go from afterthoughts to the forefront in coach Randy Wittman’s mind when he considers his second unit.

The opportunity for each has grown due to injury. Rice, poised to be the primary backup at shooting guard, has a chance for extended minutes due to a fractured wrist that will keep Beal sidelined for another month. Unfortunately, Rice’s own injury (sprained ankle) kept him out of the final three preseason games and he’s questionable for Wednesday’s season-opener at Miami.

The door for Porter at small forward is open wider because backing up Pierce automatically means more playing time than backing up Beal. Also, Porter’s primary competition at the spot is Martell Webster, who had back surgery in June and could be out until December or longer.

Outside of Wall and Beal (No. 3 overall in 2012), Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld hasn’t had much success in the first round. But Porter was supposed to give Washington a budding “Big Three” that could grow together for the next decade — and make everyone forget about the No. 6 pick Grunfeld wasted on Jan Vesely in 2011.

Porter doesn’t have to be great to fulfill his potential and play his role. He just needs to become a very good complementary piece, like Tayshun Prince and Horace Grant for the Pistons and Bulls, respectively. It would really help matters if he improved his outside shooting, especially on 3-pointers, to open the floor for Wall’s drives and Gortat’s work in the post.

He averaged 13 points per game on 48.7 percent shooting in eight preseason games this year and hit 47.1 percent from behind the arc — a marked improvement after shooting 19 percent on threes during his forgettable rookie season. In the Wizards‘ final preseason game, Porter scored 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting against the Knicks.

The coach’s reaction to Porter’s progress was appropriate and a perfect summation on Rice’s flashes as well.

“We haven’t played a single game,” Wittman told reporters. “Preseason doesn’t count. But it’s good to see.

“When the popcorn pops, we’ll see where that goes.”

True. But if those two young kernels burst open, the Wizards will need extra butter.

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