- The Washington Times
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld claimed three of his starters — John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter — at the top of the draft. He flipped first-round picks and some salary cap space for Markieff Morris and Marcin Gortat. Together, the group is viewed as one of the best in the Eastern Conference.

The rub comes from the rest of the roster. Grunfeld has not been able to put together a stout bench unit to uplift his young stars. Wall has been an All-Star four times in the last four seasons. Behind him at backup point guard have been players like Eric Maynor, who now plays in Italy. Grunfeld then tried a 37-year-old version of Andre Miller. Miller was later traded for Ramon Sessions, a journeyman who lasted 110 games and became Wall’s best relief. This season, the Wizards have tried three players to backup Wall.

That microcosm of failing to find a sufficient backup point guard shows what remains a significant hole in the playoffs. Washington survived most of the year with its bench players underperforming. Once the backups raised their play, the Wizards went on a torrid run through January and February. But, the group is back to haunting the starters during Washington’s first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks, which is tied 2-2.

Washington’s bench numbers are troubling throughout. None of the backups has been a consistent boost in the first four games against Atlanta. In fact, the group has been a resounding detriment. A look by position:

Brandon Jennings: Grunfeld pulled in his third point guard of the season when he signed Jennings after the New York Knicks waived him. He replaced Trey Burke, who was traded for in the offseason to backup Wall, a role explicitly stated in the press release announcing the deal for Burke, which cost a second-round pick in the 2021 draft. He has been able to score against Atlanta’s backup point guard, Jose Calderon. However, Calderon was a plus-29 in Game 3, doing much of his work in the second quarter when Washington rolled out a bench lineup plus one starter, which, in that case, was Wall. Jennings has been a significant defensive liability whenever he has guarded Atlanta’s starting point guard, Dennis Schroder, and otherwise.

Bojan Bogdanovic: He made progress in Game 4 when Atlanta tried to hide Calderon defensively on him. Bogdanovic scored over him in the post and was able to find a wide open 3-pointer, which he made.

“I tried to post him up twice,” Bogdanovic said. “I get one bucket, but it’s tough. They play team defense like we do. It’s not one-on-one. It’s five guys against five guys.”

Before going 5-for-9 in Game 4, Bogdanovic was 6-for-24 (25 percent) in the series.

“Bojan and Otto [Porter], they had a nice little game [Monday] night,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Hopefully, their confidence and momentum of that game can carryover for [Wednesday] night’s game.”

Kelly Oubre: The second-year player’s first foray into the playoffs has been brutal. Oubre has committed 17 fouls, turned the ball over four times and made just seven field goals. Since a solid 4-for-8 performance in Game 1, Oubre is 3-for-14 (21.4 percent) from the field.

“Foul trouble,” Wall said of Oubre. “He’s an aggressive defender… I think just making smarter decisions when he’s attacking the basket, trying to avoid charges and he’ll be all right.”

Jason Smith: Because of Ian Mahinmi’s multiple injuries during the regular season, the Wizards were forced to use Smith as a backup power forward and backup center. His shooting was a revelation. Smith shot a career-high 52.9 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from behind the 3-point line. Against Atlanta, his numbers are tilted similar to Oubre’s. Smith has committed 18 fouls and made just six field goals. His time on the floor has been all the more crucial in the last three games because of Morris often being in foul trouble.

Ian Mahinmi: The backup center has stood watching the series in a well-tailored suit. He said Tuesday that he is on schedule to return from his calf injury in the first round, though he has yet to practice with the team. Brooks said Mahinmi will not play in Game 5 and that he “doubts” Mahinmi would be available for Game 6 Friday. Losing Mahinmi has cost the second group much of the rhythm is had toward the end of the season. It also took its best defender off the floor, someone who could makeup for the poor coverage by Jennings, and others, in pick-and-rolls.

Grunfeld spent lavishly in the offseason to fill out the bench. Around the trade deadline, he used the one asset he had, next season’s first-round pick to acquire Bogdanovic. Not impressed with Burke or Tomas Satoransky, he pulled in Jennings. None of those moves have worked yet in the playoffs, and it has made Washington’s path to getting out of the first round a treacherous one.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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