- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2017

When John Wall motioned to the bench in the third quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, he wasn’t just signalling the exhaustion of the moment. Wall’s fatigue, in large part delivered by an unsteady bench in the series and throughout the season, was a signal of what needed to change. The Wizards’ three-time All-Star was gassed because there was no support behind him in the series against Boston’s pile of guards. Really, there was no support behind him all season.

Wednesday night, when the Wizards start the season in Capital One Arena with a rare home opener, there will not be questions about their starting five. What Washington has established between providing lump sums to homegrown draft picks and the weakening of the Eastern Conference rests with its starting five. Where Washington will go this season, in large part, rests with the remainder of the roster.

In the last two seasons, the NBA has worked to untangle its stressful schedule. The number of back-to-back games has been truncated. Leg-eroding spans of three games in four nights have been eliminated. This season, the NBA’s 72nd, provides the earliest start in league history, spreading out the schedule and enabling extra breaks between games for its stars. That’s a start toward more rest for Wall and Bradley Beal. Their teammates need to provide the rest.

Washington’s bench play remains flooded with questions before its opening tip-off against the young and talented Philadelphia 76ers. Who will do the scoring? How will Tomas Satoransky be used? Can Ian Mahinmi remain healthy? Can they, as a group, stay afloat for a few minutes a night throughout the season?

“I think our bench is improved in a lot of areas,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “One, hopefully Ian remains healthy like he has been all summer. He’s been great in the preseason of staying healthy and being on the floor. I think that helps. We added some veterans — Mike Scott, Jodie Meeks, Tim Frazier. Those guys are veteran-savvy, tough, professional players. And, we added those guys along with some of the guys we had, with Jason [Smith] and Tomas coming back, and Kelly [Oubre] coming back, another year under his belt.”

Washington’s roster is a microcosm of the indictment and credit that has applied to general manager Ernie Grunfeld since he began running the team in 2003. The starting five is among the best in the league, in either conference. It’s also a result of three high-end draft picks — Wall, Beal and Otto Porter — working out, as well as two trades, one for Markieff Morris and another for Marcin Gortat, heavily working in the Wizards’ favor. Neither player selected with the first-round picks attached to those trades is still with the team that selected them. None of the players sent from Washington to Phoenix in both trades are still in the league. Washington has two starters as part of the defending Southeast Division champions who won 49 games last season.

The bench is the other side. Grunfeld’s wayward choices in the summer of 2016 — and at the trade deadline — still reverberate this season. He stunningly overpaid forward Andrew Nicholson, a move that has bitten the organization twice. In order to get out from under Nicholson’s contract, Grunfeld had to attach a first-round pick in the Feb. 22 trade for Bojan Bogdanovic. Nicholson is playing in China this season, enjoying the fruits of the $26 million Grunfeld committed to him. Bogdanovic was not re-signed. The ongoing result of the trade — which needed to be made because of prior bench decisions that did not work — is Chris McCullough, a non-rotation player, remaining on the roster.

Which again makes the bench a curiosity filled with flyers and the team’s one first-round pick of the last four years.

Washington spent its 2017 second-round pick in a trade for point guard Tim Frazier. He played a career-high 65 games last season for the New Orleans Pelicans. How he plays will largely determine how often Wall can sit down during the regular season. Each minute, starting in Game 1 Wednesday, will count toward what Wall has left in the postseason.

Shooting guard Jodie Meeks has played a total of 39 games in the last two seasons combined. He is Bradley Beal’s primary backup at the start of the season. Meeks could even mix in with the starters if Brooks uses a smaller lineup.

After eight seasons in the league, during which Meeks has been a starter and bench player, he understands how necessary it is for the bench to back a starting group that was ninth in the league in net rating last season. The bench was 23rd.

“As a bench, [we want to] come in and dominate the other team’s bench,” Meeks said. “The better we play, the less stress we have to put on the starters.”

Mahinmi’s health following a season filled with knee problems is also key. Washington waived its third big man, second-year center Daniel Ochefu, leaving Mahinmi and Marcin Gortat as the lone true centers on the team.

Then, finally, there is weight on Oubre. He remains a lanky project who the coaching staff is trying to convince to be defense-first. Oubre altered the release position on his jump shot in the offseason. After shooting just 28.7 percent from behind the 3-point line last season, something needed to change. He also worked on his ball-handling. Just 21, Oubre’s offense still requires heavy work.

“With him and when I work with him and continue to develop his game, it’s always giving him a little bit, then maybe taking some of it back, then giving him a little bit more,” Brooks said. “It’s incremental steps. There’s sometimes you scratch your head, some of his decisions [made when] he’s dribbling the ball in between two or three guys and you think he should see that. Those are great examples and I use that as great examples to teach him during the film sessions with our coaches to get some dialogue going.

“I like what Kelly has done over the last year when I’ve been with him.”

Last season, Wall averaged 36.4 minutes per game, the most since his rookie season. Tuesday, Brooks was asked about how much he would like to play Wall during the regular season. He said he would like to shave that total by a couple minutes, if possible. It’s the same answer he gave repeatedly last season, month after month, until Wall raised his hand asking for relief in Game 7.

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