WASHINGTON (AP) — At Russell Westbrook’s first practice as a member of the Washington Wizards, he already was setting a tone — showing up early, cajoling teammates and calling them to task, teaching younger players.
Exactly a week later, in the fourth quarter of Washington’s preseason debut, there was Westbrook, standing on the sideline — he and Bradley Beal both got the night off — toting a clipboard in his right hand and a marker in his left.
“The way he prepares, it’s priceless. And the way the guys can see him prepare and get ready for the game; he was on the court a couple of hours before practice. They’re going to know. They might think, ‘OK, maybe that’s just his first day.’ No. … They’re going to see that this who he is. This is what he’s about,” Brooks said.
“He’s a coach on the floor,” Brooks said. “That partnership with him and Brad — they’re about the same things. They’re about basketball.”
The Wizards hope they charted a new course by swapping John Wall for Westbrook, the 2016-17 NBA MVP, and pairing the new point guard with shooting guard Beal with the aim of getting back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
“His resume speaks for itself. We need to get better rebounding; he’s a great rebounder. We want to make sure that we’re moving the ball, sharing the ball; he’s one of the league leaders in assists every year,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said about Westbrook, who is not expected to play in back-to-back games this season, just like he didn’t last season with the Rockets. “Those areas alone, I think, impact us. Defensively, (he’s) one more veteran voice out on the floor that can help be a quarterback out there and is going to help us on the defensive end a great deal.”
There are going to be — and will need to be — other players who contribute and play key roles if the Wizards are going to turn things around after losing 50 games two seasons ago and 47 in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
But let’s face it: This team is going to go as far as its two best players take it together. There’s Westbrook, a nine-time all-NBA selection and someone who averaged a triple-double for three seasons. And there’s Beal, a two-time All-Star who was second in the league in scoring last season by averaging 30.5 points.
Brooks predicted “a pretty seamless transition” but also acknowledged “there’s going to be some figuring out to do.”
“They’re as physical as any backcourt in the league,” said Brooks, who used to coach Westbrook when both were with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “They can be as good as any two-way backcourt in the league. I like that.”
Sheppard made clear this offseason, before trading away Wall, that this is now Beal’s team. “My biggest thing is win now. … We’ve got to win. The organization knows that,” said Beal, who is healthy after cutting last season short because of a shoulder issue. “It’s up to me, too.” As for his new running mate, he said there are “false narratives” out there related to what sort of teammate Westbrook is, and Beal insists he won’t buy into any of it. “I have a lot to learn from him. … I love his aggression. I love his attack mentality,” Beal said. Westbrook, meanwhile, praised Beal’s “superstar talent.” Said Westbrook: “My job is to come in and continue to uplift him, try to push him to be better. That’s all I’m here for. I’m happy to be his counterpart and try to make the game easier for him.”
Brooks is entering the final season of his five-year, $35 million contract. Westbrook credited with Brooks helping him become the player he is today by allowing him to play through mistakes and get better when he first entered the pros. “The trust part for me was huge,” Westbrook said, adding: “We created a relationship, not just at work, but a friendship.”
RUI AND DENI
Washington has a lot of young players (13 in training camp with fewer than three NBA seasons) and a decidedly international cast, including its past two first-round draft picks: Rui Hachimura, a 22-year-old from Japan, and Deni Avdija, a 19-year-old from Israel. The team could use significant minutes and moments from both forwards. “He has a lot of dog. He doesn’t back down from anybody,” Beal said about Avdija. “It’s just a matter of getting him a better feel for the game at the 3, at the 4, mixing him up. Once he gets fully acclimated, he’ll be just like Rui. Rui’s growth is crazy to see now.”
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