By Jeremy Hyman
The bus pulled up to the Richmond hotel on an warm Monday afternoon. The unofficial start to the 2017-18 season. First, the coaches stepped off, then the players. About four and a half months after they took the floor in Boston for Game 7, it was nearly the same group of guys that stepped off the bus in Richmond. Markieff Morris (sports hernia) wasn’t there, there were a few new faces, a few young guys fresh out of school ready to try and live their dream, but for the most part, this was the same group. A theme that will be played out for much of the start of this year for the Wizards and a drastic difference to the feel of training camp just one year ago.
While many of their top competitors in the East made big changes this summer, the Wizards made only a few tweaks, while their biggest moves were locking up their core. John Wall, Bradley Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. have now been secured for at least the next five years, and they will be tasked with carrying this team to a place they haven’t been in nearly 40 years.
This was the team’s second straight year traveling to Richmond and the campus of VCU for training camp. While the city and venue were the same from 2016, the feeling was much different this time around. This time, the team was returning their head coach, his entire staff, and nearly the same roster as the year prior. It was as if the team picked up right where they left off in May. They went to a team dinner on Monday night, and then held the first practice of the season on Tuesday morning. After they gathered at center court, head coach Scott Brooks and Wall said a few words to the team, and then they went right into a drill. There was no need to repeat too much terminology, the coaching staff simply wanted to begin with some points of emphasis for the season. They got their message across, wrapped up the drill, and then the team went into their stretch. There was already an added feeling of familiarity.
“I told him [Brooks] after our team meeting that he seemed a lot more comfortable. Last year, he didn’t know what to expect with us, we were just getting to know him, but we know who he is now, what he’s capable of, and the coaching style he wants, and how he wants us to play, so it’s a lot smoother this time,” said sixth year guard Bradley Beal.
After the first practice, Beal responded to one of the first questions asked by letting the media know this was his sixth year. He seemed to have made that known intentionally. It was as if he realized that he’s now a veteran, and one of the guys this team will look to for leadership.
“I felt a lot more comfortable, I feel like I’m more in a leadership role, I’m still a young guy, but I have guys that look up to me and guys ask for advice, it was great to get out here and get my legs going and getting back to Wizards basketball,” Beal said.
For Brooks, having this group back and having a year under his belt in DC seemed to make all the difference for his second camp with the Wizards.
“It was definitely a lot different, being around the guys for a year, everyone knew what we do on both ends of the floor, it sped things up, we didn’t have to stop the drill, explain the drill as much, we have a few new guys, it was just a refresher course and we had a good practice,” said the head coach.
The rest of the week was a lot more of the same. They held two practices on Wednesday, had a morning practice on Thursday, followed by a clinic for local elementary school kids and a local wheelchair basketball team. Then they had a morning practice Friday, an open practice for the fans to attend on Friday evening, and then one final practice on Saturday before departing for DC.
“It feels a lot different, just teaching the basics all over again, last year we had to go through what coach wanted, last year we had boxes on the court so guys could figure out where to run on the floor, now we already know now where guys like to be, and just trying to work it in for a few new guys now,” said John Wall, who is entering his eighth NBA season.
With so much continuity at camp, it allowed for plenty of competitiveness, especially with the one-on-one drill. This drill was talked about last year as well, a defensive one, where one player was selected, and then Brooks would tell that player to pick out three of his teammates who “can’t score on you.” The one selected player then had to defend each of the players who he picked out, and with the rest of the team watching, it created great enthusiasm from not only the players involved in the drill, but everyone watching as well.
Training camp can feel long and tiring, but Brooks did a great job mixing up drills, mixing up teams, and was able to have everyone feeling fresh. He knows what kind of team he has this year and didn’t need to overwork or burn out the group before the grind of the season begins.
Like any team, there are some questions entering the season, but not nearly as many as in year’s past. There is a confidence with this group, that was shown in camp, like they know they belong, and they don’t have to play the role of underdogs. They are being picked by many experts to win 50-plus games and compete for a top spot in the East, which could make some complacent, but this group won’t allow that to happen.
The Wizards like they have unfinished business and training camp was just the first step to a journey they hope won’t end until June.