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Jun 29

Inside the Wizards player development program: Pain doesnt last forever – The Athletic

WASHINGTON The Washington Wizards practice gym surged to life at 8:44 on a recent weekday morning. The Kodak Black song I Wish roared through the loudspeaker, the soulful lyrics and steady beat echoing off the walls and the courts. Young players completed their stretching, rose to their feet and assembled near baskets, no more than two players per hoop.

In one corner of the gym, centers Vernon Carey Jr. and Jaime Echenique rarely stopped moving over the next hour. Player development manager Mike Batiste and assistant coaches Joseph Blair, Pat Delany and Mike Miller put the two big men through an arduous, structured workout, with the players alternating on the court. In drill after drill after drill, with the coaches often clapping and yelling encouragement, Carey and Echenique honed specific skills such as step-throughs, baby hooks and sharp rolls to the hoop. Within 20 minutes, sweat drenched the youngsters red workout shirts.

Forty minutes into the workout, Delany dribbled the basketball at the top of the 3-point arc, and Carey, going full speed, simulated setting a screen, rolled to the hoop and received a bounce pass from the coach. Carey caught the ball, elevated off his left foot and threw down a thunderous left-handed dunk over Batiste that would have brought fans to their feet. Blair, in his deep bass voice, bellowed: On his head! On his head!

At 9:45 a.m., the coaches concluded the workout, and Carey and Echenique, both spent, trudged off the court, hands on hips.

Its taxing, but its going to help you in the long run, Carey said, perspiration dripping off his forehead and chin. Pain doesnt last forever. Its gonna be a little painful for a little bit, but it wont last.

The centers grueling workout offered a window into the Wizards player development program under head coach Wes Unseld Jr., who arrived in Washington last July after six seasons as an assistant coach with the Denver Nuggets, a team well respected for developing young players such as second-round pick-turned-MVP Nikola Joki and point guard Jamal Murray. This offseason, Unseld and his assistant coaches are getting their first opportunity to work with Wizards players over an entire summer.

For players young and old alike, offseasons provide priceless opportunities to eliminate weaknesses, solidify strengths and set a tone for the season to come. For inexperienced prospects, such as 21-year-old Carey and 20-year-old forward Isaiah Todd, the spring and summer months offer chances for one-on-one coaching and time to hone their physiques. For youngsters who already have established themselves as rotation players like Deni Avdija, Daniel Gafford, Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert this is the time to do the unglamorous work that will earn them more minutes.

Consistent incremental gains can pay big dividends down the road. Drafting well, making smart trades and identifying smart free-agent signings of course are essential to building a winner, but a franchise also needs to improve the players it already has and make them the best possible versions of themselves. Teams such as the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs are renowned for developing their players and for bringing the best out of players the rest of the league undervalues. Elevate players skills, and a team not only will win more games, but it also will raise its players values, which is an essential part of roster-building.

Every player can improve, said Tommy Sheppard, Wizards president and general manager. Every skill set has areas of improvement. Every skill set can be grown and continue to be sharpened every summer. We talk about (how) you find out in the winter what you did in the summer. You want to bring back a new aspect to your game or a new-and-improved area.

The younger a player is, the more room he has to improve, which largely explains why players typically make their biggest jumps between their rookie and second seasons, their second and third seasons and their third and fourth seasons.

This is the first full NBA offseason for Kispert and Todd, who were rookies in 2021-22. But its also the first full, uninterrupted offseason for Avdija, who spent last summer recovering from a right-ankle fracture he suffered as a rookie. And considering how the pandemic disrupted and shortened the 2020 and 21 offseasons, this also is the first full regular offseason for Carey, Todd, Gafford and Hachimura.

I have a lot of stuff to work on, and I know what I need to do better, Avdija said, adding he needs to take the next step in several areas of his game, including his dribbling with his left hand and improving his outside shooting.

Under Unseld, the Wizards keep a player development book with detailed action plans for each player, updating the entries in the preseason, at midseason and the end of the regular season. Unseld said the book is ever-evolving, with the teams coaches and staff constantly measuring progress (or lack thereof) and making any necessary adjustments.

This offseason, Unseld, his coaches, the front office and the medical staff have created personalized plans for each player, which is something other teams do, too. Wizards coaches and support staffers check in at least once a week with players who spend their offseasons away from Washington and regularly visit them to evaluate their progress. Even Kristaps Porziis, a veteran who spends most of his offseason in Europe, will receive at least one visit overseas and also is in regular contact with team officials.

As we map things out in the summer, how do we think a guy can play for us? Unseld said. What are his strengths? What are his weaknesses? What do we need to do to get him up to speed so we can plug him in and he can play? Then you get to midseason, and you look at it, and youre like, well, where is he as far as that first stretch of games? What are the things that we did or didnt do to help him get to where he should be? If hes where he should be, can we add more to his plate?

No two players in Unselds system follow the same path. For instance, Unseld said he initially did not expect Kispert to play significant minutes as a rookie, but when injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak hit the team, Kispert took advantage of his opportunities. He made consistent strides throughout the season, wound up starting 36 games and improved his field-goal and 3-point shooting percentages in the seasons final months.

Avdija and Hachimura made progress last season, too. Avdija appeared in all 82 regular-season games, a testament to his work and the medical staffs work during the summer of 2021. Hachimura missed the opening months of the season as he dealt with a personal issue, but he dramatically raised his 3-point accuracy from 32.8 percent in 2020-21 to 44.7 percent in 2021-22.

Meanwhile, Todd spent almost the entire 2021-22 season playing for the Wizards G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go. Picked 16 spots after Kispert in the 2021 NBA Draft, Todd did not attend college and spent his year after high school playing for the G League Ignite. Because he was inexperienced and only 20 last season, team officials felt a patient but steady, long-term approach would be the best way to develop the lanky youngster.

He fits a lot of archetypes of the type of player thats very successful in the NBA, Sheppard said. If you want to call him a 3-and-D (player), he has the potential to do those things. But it wasnt going to happen if we threw him out on an NBA court. You can lose a ton of confidence your first year if youre not ready to go out there.

Sometimes its going to take some time, and you have to be patient, Sheppard added. But you have to stick with the plan. You can always adjust as you go. But you cant just bail on somebody if they had a tough week or a tough game or a tough month. Those players, theyve got to develop, and the only way to do that is to go out and play.

Todd, who is 6 foot 10, has been a regular at the Wizards practice facility this offseason. On the same morning Carey and Echenique were working out, Todd was on an adjacent court working with assistant coach Zach Guthrie and two additional staff members.

Todd said team officials want him to work on everything, with a special emphasis on rebounding, defending and learning how to be a pro. He has been motivated in part by a conversation he had a few months ago with a Wizards veteran. That veteran, whom Todd declined to name, said he made his biggest gains during the offseasons when he was 20 and 21, the formative age range Todd is in now. Its no surprise, then, that Todd is on the court and in the weight room every workday.

Every day when I come in, its specified for me and my development, the things that they want from me on the court and the things that are going to propel me forward in the league, Todd said. Like perfecting my shot, were talking about the details, not just getting up reps. The reps that Im getting up are high-quality, high-detail reps. Everybody in here is so supportive.

Sometimes I come in early in the morning, at 7 or 8 oclock, and there are six coaches here with me, and just me, on the court working on things. They watch hours of film before they even come to me, and theyre telling me the things that can help me propel in the league and get some time on the court.

Todd, along with new first-round pick Johnny Davis, is expected to be a central component of the Wizards team at the upcoming NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. To prepare, Todd and others, including Carey and members of the Go-Go, have played pickup games at the practice facility to apply their individual skill work to game situations.

Theyre showing they want to invest in their development, Unseld said. Its not us going to grab their hand and forcing them to be in the gym and put in the time and put in the work. Their willingness, thats step one. Theyre eager. They understand whats at stake. They understand the opportunity that this presents and the resources that they have at their fingertips.

It helps that the coaches and staff members attempt to make the work fun. That explains the music that blares on the gyms speaker system during skill workouts. During their recent session, Batiste, Blair, Delany and Miller who combined have 18 seasons of NBA assistant-coaching experience, plus additional experience coaching G League teams closely monitored Careys and Echeniques every move, and the coaches clapped and smiled throughout the hour-long session. As Unseld often says, there should be excitement and joy about going to work, not just for the players but for the coaches, too.

At 9:42 a.m., on the last rep of the morning, Carey, fatigued, finished a roll to the hoop with a soft layup and missed the shot.

Blair turned to Carey and said, Is that how you want to finish?

Carey picked up the ball and slammed it with a reverse dunk.

A few minutes later, still breathing heavily, Carey said, For every job, youve got to put in the work or youve got to study. Youve got to do the extra things.

(Top photo of Mike Batiste, Jaime Echenique and Vernon Carey Jr.: Courtesy of the Washington Wizards)

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Inside the Wizards player development program: Pain doesnt last forever - The Athletic

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