- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

TOWSON, Md. — Trying to explain how sudden the end feels, Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman was not in a position to dissect the slammed-door finality of last season just yet. Paul Pierce’s shot was too late, the Wizards went out in the same spot as the previous season and although it was a couple days later, Wittman had a grasp on the how quickly the end came last May, and little else.

He went home and thought about what he could have done better. Wittman looked at film, considered what he wanted to change and how. The conclusions were clear after the Wizards‘ small-ball lineup almost pushed them into the Eastern Conference Finals. The defense, always the Wittman priority, needed little tinkering. The team was second in field-goal percentage defense last season. The offense, though, needed to go into the shop.

When the Wizards spread players out, unknotting the lane for swift John Wall, the effect in the playoffs was pronounced and immediate. Prior criticisms of Wittman often centered on his plodding offensive strategy. The Wizards were labeled as a team that was behind the times in the NBA, which emphasized small lineups, 3-point shots and number crunching.

They caught up in a hurry when playing two small-lineup oriented teams, the Toronto Raptors and top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, in the playoffs. Wittman’s summer review only confirmed the results and helped spur the signing of shooter Gary Neal, versatile forward Jared Dudley and veteran Alan Anderson to repopulate the bench. Big men Kris Humphries and Drew Gooden spent the offseason shooting 3-pointers. The priority between mid-May and the start of training camp at Towson on Tuesday was providing more space and pace in the coming season.

“We’ve got to make great strides offensively,” Wittman said. “We’re below average in terms of all the numbers, you know, points per game, points per 100 possessions, pace of play. All those things have got to be better. I think if we stay where we are defensively, and we improve ourselves in those offensive numbers, that’s how you advance on farther.”

The Wizards were tied for 17th in points per game last season. They were 19th in points per 100 possessions and 16th in pace. Considering Wall, perhaps the fastest player in the league with the ball, is the point guard, those are stuck-in-the-mud numbers, not just below average.

One factor during the regular season, beyond Nene and Marcin Gortat often playing together in the middle, was that the Wizards‘ backup point guard was then-38-year-old Andre Miller. To pick up the pace, they traded Miller for Ramon Sessions. Once the floor was spread, Sessions and Wall were able to move the offense from end to end at a more brisk rate.

Prioritizing the 3-pointer was evident at the end of Tuesday’s practice. Five of the six rims in the shiny SECU Arena were being used by players practicing 3-point shots. Humphries and Gooden were shooting corner 3-pointers. Wall and Bradley Beal worked together. Even big man Josh Harrellson — who shot 31 threes last season — was behind the line. Gortat took a solo walk to retrieve a T-shirt he left in the bleachers. He said he wasn’t going to “pretend to work” on his 3-point shooting. He knows his role.

Also taped off near the arc were white boxes denoting spots on the left and right wings. The corners were boxed off, too. They were assigned spots for offensive players in practice. From the start this season, the Wizards are trying to maximize their spacing and their push of the ball. Often, they will populate the floor with Wall, three shooters, and Gortat as a rolling big man.

“It was totally different,” Wall said of the first day of camp. “We did a lot more running because our offense has changed. We’re getting more uptempo. You see all these little boxes out there, that’s where we have to go to every time we get the ball. It’s a lot more running. We’re going to do a lot of it every day to get in better shape because we want to play at this speed and pace.”

Wall went so far as to say the team wants to be in the top five in pace of play this season.

Bradley Beal could see the largest benefit. With a self-professed intent to drive to the rim more often, the way he did in last season’s playoffs, the extra room to move will provide additional opportunities to do so.

“As a team, we just want the floor to be more spaced,” Beal said.

The up-tempo effort should also help Wall, who is running out of steps to take in his progression. Last season, he was the starting point guard on the Eastern Conference all-star team. He was named to the all-defensive second team. He was second, narrowly, in assists per game. Only the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul had more.

“It’s totally different [offense] than we had in the past,” Wall said. “We’ve still got some of the same plays, but now it’s just kind of me having the ball and reading.”

Wall makes large donation to homeless center

Wall recently donated $400,000 to Bright Beginnings, a Washington center for homeless children that works as an early childhood development and learning organization. Wall was raised with meager means in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“I told everybody before, God give me the ability and talent to play basketball and do something I love,” Wall said Tuesday. “I think it’s more important and bigger to give back to the community and do certain things to show people you care, and you’re not just a Hollywood person that doesn’t care about other people’s lives that are less fortunate, because I was in that situation before.”

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