It’s been a long year for the Wizards, who are still clinging to faint playoff hopes despite losing John Wall for the season. But across the river, Washington’s newly-minted NBA G League team has been an unqualified success in its first year and, with a late push, could have a playoff run of its own.
The goals for a development team are different from that of a top-level pro club. With a roster of players just compiled that have never played together before, expectations are generally low in terms of wins and losses for a first-year team.
“You have to look at it as a double bottom line,” said general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu. “We hang our hat on development across the board — players, staff, organization, community. With that said, when all of that is able to develop, winning is going to fall in there somewhere.”
But the Go-Go sit at 23-23, a game and a half back of the final playoff spot with four games left on their schedule, including the final two home games of the year, this Thursday at 7 p.m. and Saturday at 1 p.m. against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast D.C.
With the way the G League schedule works, even if Capital City makes it into the playoffs, this week’s games will be the final ones in D.C. this year. They’re games that mean something to the players who have given themselves the chance to be in this position.
“Especially this being our first year, nobody expected us to be any good,” said rookie point guard Chris Chiozza, whose play earned him a call-up to Team USA for FIBA World Championship qualifying. “We’re still trying to figure some things out, and we got a chance to make the playoffs. That’s what the goal was. We knew we could do it from the beginning.”
So, what can fans expect if they come out this week?
“Just a good show. We play hard, and we’ve got great talent. We’ve got some guys out right now with injuries, but we’re still a fun team to watch,” said Chiozza. “When we have everybody, I think we might be the funnest team to watch in the G League.”
One piece of talent that has been nursing an injury is guard Jordan McRae, who came back from a year oversees in Spain to join the Go-Go and has made the most of his time back in the states. The 27-year-old is leading the G League in scoring at 30.7 points per game in the 29 games he’s played, including a league season-high 54 on Jan. 18. That’s earned him multiple looks back at Capital One Arena as a two-way player with the Wizards, for whom he’s made 19 appearances.
McRae’s a veteran of the G League, having played in Delaware and Canton in past seasons. He credits both the nice facilities and the ease of having both the NBA and developmental squad operating out of the same building in the same city with some of his comfort this year.
“The travel, for sure, was a lot easier, with the amount of days I’ve been up and down,” he said. “To share a practice arena with them, be able to see them, watch their walk-throughs and film, and being able to learn from them is good.”
There are advantages both on and off the court that might not occur to most folks. McRae doesn’t take for granted being able to shoot at the same rim every day in practice. In Delaware, the team practiced on one college court, then played games on another one. There are even things as simple as knowing that, in a big city, you have options to eat once games are over, a luxury not afforded to every G League town.
“I didn’t know Oshkosh was a real place until this year,” said McRae, referring to the Milwaukee Bucks’ affiliate in Wisconsin. “So to be in D.C. is a blessing for us.”
The developmental success of Chiozza and McRae along with Chasson Randle — who was the first Go-Go player ever called up to the Wizards, playing in 34 games makes everything else icing on the cake, as far as Mensah-Bonsu is concerned. But if there’s one thing he’s focused on off the court as Year 1 comes to a close, it’s simply spreading the word, letting people know what’s happening right here in their backyard.
“There’s some people in the area who may not even know that the arena is here,” he said. “I feel like we have to do a better job to get that out there, and let the community know that we’re here in representation of them, and to have their support, and vice versa.”
The Go-Go will have two final chances to leave that good first impression this week.
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