It will be extremely tough for the Washington Wizards to repeat with a performance as spectacular as the one they had against the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night. But, they will look to come out firing again, this time against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m at Capital One Arena.
We have learned a lot about the Washington Wizards four games through the season. And despite a record of 1-3, most Wizards fans would tell you that the majority of those learnings have actually been positive. The Wizards put up 158 points in regulation on Wednesday….in REGULATION. The problem? The Rockets were able to put up 159. In the third highest scoring game in regulation in NBA history, the Wizards were a questionable James Harden foul call (stop me if you’ve heard that before) away from sending the game to overtime.One thing we learned not only from the Houston game, but the previous three before it as well, is that this clearly isn’t the same team as last season – and I don’t mean by just roster construction. Clearly, with 10 new players on the roster this season, there were going to be changes on the team. But what we are seeing this season from a roster full of young players is something we haven’t seen in the last few seasons. They’ve shown fight when things have gotten tough, instead of a lack of effort, as the team last year admitted to on many occasions.
Key to Victory: Stopping the Second Option
Speaking of fight, did you see what went down between two of the best centers in the league? The new generation of big men went at it on Wednesday night, as tempers brought 76ers center Joel Embiid and Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns to brawl, resulting in both being ejected and suspended for two games.
This is great news for the Wizards, as KAT has taken the league by storm early through the season, and will be forced to sit this game out. KAT has averaged 27.2 PPG, 11.5 PPG, 4.0 APG, while shooting 52.9 from distance, marking him an early MVP candidate after leading the T-Wolves to a 3-1 start.
With Karl-Anthony Towns out, the scoring burden will be put on SF Andrew Wiggins, who is the T-Wolves second leading scorer this season at 20.3 PPG.
So how do you stop Andrew Wiggins? The scoring likely will come. But will it come at an efficient rate? That we don’t know. With Karl-Anthony Towns out, the Wizards can likely focus more on the scoring threat of Wiggins, and force him to take contested jumpers that he has seemingly become more comfortable taking this season. While Wiggins is scoring at a high rate as the second option, the knock on him has been how inefficient he is, and how he is willing to settle for looks that don’t put his team in a position to win games. He has shot a mediocre 41.9 percent from the field this season, and an even uglier 21.7 percent from three point range. If the Wizards can force Wiggins to take contested jumpers and limit his scoring punch, the Wizards should be able to get back into the win column over a strong Western Conference opponent.
Match-up to Watch For: Rui Hachimura vs Jarrett Culver
Wizards rookie SF/PF Rui Hachimura has taken the NBA by storm early into his rookie season. The No 9. overall pick has turned heads by averaging 18 PPG, third most among rookies this season, and 7.0 RPG, the most by a rookie this season. He has shown multiple elements of a versatile offensive skill set already this season, with his mid-range jumper drawing comparisons to that of Kawhi Leonard by many analysts. To me, he compares to a young Paul Millsap on the offensive end of the floor, with a strong mid-range jumper, great ball handling ability for his size, and an ability to be stronger than defenders that lack size on him.
On Saturday night, Rui will get an opportunity to get early revenge on a team that passed him up, as the T-Wolves traded up to pick No. 6 to grab forward Jarrett Culver out of Texas Tech. Culver was widely seen as a top-five level of talent in the 2019 NBA Draft, graded higher than Rui by nearly every analyst. So far, the start to Culver’s career has been underwhelming, but there is plenty of time for him to develop and get on track. Culver has averaged just 3 PPG on 26.3 percent shooting, to go with 1 RPG in 14.5 minutes per game. While he and Karl-Anthony Towns do not play the same position, his suspension could put Culver in line for more minutes with the rotation shortened a bit, pitting Rui and Culver against each other for an early season rookie duel.
Whether or not Rui will match-up with Culver defensively will be interesting to watch, but even if they don’t, it will be fun to see how the rookies perform. So far, Rui has performed with the spotlight shined brightly upon him, and we will see if he is able to get the edge up over another rookie in his class. Much of Rui’s success has come due to opportunity, already getting a ton of minutes and offensive plays ran for him as a rookie, something that Culver has yet to experience much of.
Story to Watch For: Resurrection of IT’s Career?
Just about two years ago, Wizards fans saw the full potential of Isaiah Thomas. In game two of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals, IT poured in 53 points on his sister’s birthday, just following her tragic death in a game he dedicated to her. The next two seasons following that were filled with injury, and questions. Following poor stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers two seasons ago, he followed it by playing in just 12 games last season for the Denver Nuggets, leaving even more questions about what he had left in the tank.
Will we ever see 53 point Eastern Conference Semifinals IT ever again? Maybe not. Probably not. But what can be carved out for him is a role that keeps him playing in the league and contributing to winning as a sixth man. IT has performed very well in this role just two games into his short (pun-intended) Wizards career. In his first game back against the Spurs following recovery from surgery to a ligament in his left thumb (his shooting hand), he added 16 points and 5 assists off the bench in just 20 minutes of play. He followed that on Wednesday with an even better performance, a 17 point, 10 assist double-double off the bench in 24 minutes.
When asked about his performance in the last two games, Thomas is glad to be on the court again but anticipates playing stronger as time goes on. “I mean, it feels good to just be out there, but I expect way more. I’m supposed to do that. I expect a lot out of myself, but it’s a blessing to be out there playing, smiling and doing what I love to do. I don’t take that for granted. That’s the best feeling. I always expect more out of myself — I always feel like I can get more, but that time will come.” said Wizards guard Isaiah Thomas.
Isaiah Thomas has been on a minutes restriction as he comes back from injury, and likely will be for at least the next few games. Whether or not IT will continue to be the sixth man, or whether he could eventually return to the starting lineup has yet to be seen, but if he continues his strong level of play, we could see him starting alongside Bradley Beal in the back-court soon enough.