- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Charles Barkley always prefers the direct route.

“That team underachieved,” Barkley said of the Washington Wizards. “They definitely underachieved and I hope Scott [Brooks] can bring that out of them. That’s the bottom line because clearly, they underachieved.”

It appears Barkley thinks the Wizards underachieved last season, when they lurched back to 41-41, fired their coach, watched their best player have two offseason knee surgeries and endured another season when their second-best player set yet another career-low for games played.

Barkley is not the only one who has latched onto this idea. When the Wizards open the season Thursday night in Atlanta, the disarray of last season will be in the heads of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Marcin Gortat, who have all derided last season’s results. Missing the playoffs was a distinct step back for a team so close to the Eastern Conference Finals the season before. They know it, Barkley knows it, the team’s management knows it.

What can be different this year? Change is expected to start with Brooks and Beal.

A season after the Wizards could not play defense or rebound, Brooks has hammered on both topics as crucial. Particularly defense. Washington went to a pace-and-space offense last season that provided a bump in offensive rating and a plummet in defensive rating. The offensive pace went way up, from 93.7 possessions per 48 minutes to 98.5, according to Basketball Reference, the highest for the franchise since 1990. The Wizards also became one of the league’s poorest defensive teams after consecutive years near the top five. The philosophical change from former coach Randy Wittman — who was lampooned prior for his lack of commitment to a more modern offense — was noted by frustrated players.

“Too much stretch this, stretch that,” forward Nene said on his way out at the end of last season.

Washington knows its starting five: Wall, Beal, Otto Porter, Markieff Morris and Gortat. There is continuity there after the group spent time together toward the end of last season. There is also balance. Wall appears back up to speed despite the offseason knee surgeries and initial wonder if he would be ready for the season opener. He said this week he expects to play around 28 minutes the first night.

Beal, who was lavished with a five-year, $127 million contract in the offseason, has said he and the team have figured out how to treat his lower right leg issue. Beal has been in the NBA four seasons. He has missed time in each season because of the beginning of a stress fracture in his lower right leg. One of Brooks‘ keys will be managing the workload for Wall and Beal. They make the team go, which does not prompt a coach to remove them from the floor.

“As long as they have those two, they’re a formidable team,” Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “You’ve got two All-Star caliber players.”

What will happen behind them is a question. The Wizards remade their bench in the offseason, finding ways to spend the large amount of salary cap space in hand after Kevin Durant and Al Horford shunned Washington’s pursuits. They put $64 million into a backup defensive center, Ian Mahinmi. He is out for another month because of knee surgery. In his place, Andrew Nicholson and Jason Smith, who were teammates last season with the Orlando Magic, will fill-in.

Nicholson had a strong preseason. Brooks referred to him as “the man with 1,000 moves” after the forward shot 51 percent from the field and 47.1 percent from behind the 3-point line. The latter number reflects a much-needed outlet for the Wizards. If Nicholson can shoot around 40 percent from behind the 3-point line, he will offer a different look than the other big men on the team. Ostensibly, he replaces Jared Dudley and should be an upgrade in overall offense and rebounding. Nicholson, like Dudley, is an average defender.

The biggest questions are what happens when Beal and Wall go to the bench. Brooks is likely to straddle one of those two with his bench players, but unless they move toward the 40-minute mark, they won’t be out there often with the backups. Washington traded a 2021 second-round pick for former lottery pick Trey Burke to backup Wall. His preseason work did little to show he’s any different than the high pick the Utah Jazz gave up on. Import Tomas Satoransky appeared to fit in the league during the preseason. He was calm and used his size and athleticism well. Still, he appeared to be out of the rotation by the end of the preseason.

Behind Beal at shooting guard is veteran Marcus Thornton. He shoots often. The rest of his production is limited.

In his second season, Kelly Oubre Jr. expects to take a leap from his foul- and turnover-prone first season in the league. His minutes waffled under Wittman. They should be more consistent with Brooks in charge.

“I have very simple rules,” Brooks said. “I establish that right from the very start. Your job is to play hard every night. That’s No. 1. The second job you have to do is play hard for your teammates, because that’s who you’re playing for every night. You have to establish those goals early on. I believe the character of the group will embrace that.”

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