Wizards cast hopeful look into mirror of future, see Thunder looking back

Here at the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Eastern outpost, also known as Capital One Arena, Monday night looked like a family reunion before the Wizards ultimately fell, 136-128.

It gets to be a mouthful counting the connections between the Wizards and the Thunder, but let’s start at the top. Washington General Manager Will Dawkins spent all 15 years of his career in Oklahoma City until Monumental Basketball chief Michael Winger hired him in June, and Winger himself spent seven years there in the front office. The Wizards’ vice presidents of pro and college personnel, two longtime Washington front-office members who predate Winger and Dawkins, were scouts in Oklahoma City. The Wizards’ director of player health, who also predates Winger and Dawkins, came from the Thunder. Veteran players Mike Muscala and Danilo Gallinari had stints with the Thunder.

It was easy to see what Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. (no known ties to Oklahoma City) meant when he said pregame, “You see snippets [in their organization] as far as how we’re trying to mirror things here.”

From a front-office perspective, mirroring the Thunder is a lofty goal. Oklahoma City hoarded draft picks, yes, but it also nailed a trade for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, hit big in the 2022 draft with Chet Holmgren and pieced together a roster that has reached the top tier of the Western Conference ahead of schedule. It took, to simplify more than a decade of complex work, militant organizational buy-in, patience, impeccable talent evaluation and a friendly market, among many other elements.

The result is a team that reflects the front office. Both are workmanlike but with flair.

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That on-court energy was where the “snippets” Unseld spoke of were most present Monday night. At ground zero of their rebuild, the Wizards don’t much resemble any other NBA organization yet despite the Oklahoma City ties.

But Monday, Washington played with the Thunder’s hunger. The Wizards drove their shoulders into defenders and thrashed for rebounds. They hit 15 three-pointers and looked as if they had something to prove.

“I thought it was pretty good,” Unseld said. “I thought we were ready to go, had the energy. I thought we played well enough, we cut down on some of those other marginal areas, and we’d be okay.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, the Wizards (6-30) lost because Oklahoma City (24-11) is a more polished team. Washington exceeded expectations in all of its usual problem areas: The Wizards rebounded well, losing the battle of the boards just 40-38 — thanks in no small part to the visitors’ efficient shooting — had the same number of turnovers and hit one more three-pointer. But the Thunder got rolling early, hit five three-pointers in the first quarter and had Washington on its heels all game, especially in transition.

Oklahoma City never led by double digits for long, but with its shooting, it didn’t need to. The Thunder shot 59.1 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc.

“The shooting right now is through the roof,” Unseld said, noting the Thunder’s strengths before the game. “You’ve got seven guys shooting over 40 from three; they’re the number one three-point shooting team in the league. That helps, and it plays into Shai’s ability to attack one-on-one, play volume pick and roll, Chet’s ability to play off the bounce, space the floor. There’s a good balance of all of that.”

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The Wizards don’t have that spacing, nor do they have the Thunder’s offensive weapons — Gilgeous-Alexander had 32 points, Holmgren had 31, and Jalen Williams added 21 points and 10 assists.

But Monday reaped a lively performance from former Michigan guard Jordan Poole, who saw his fellow young shooters across the court and rose to the challenge with a team-high 24 points, including four three-pointers. He had 15 points in the third quarter alone.

“I just felt more involved,” Poole said, decked out in Wolverines gear in honor of the College Football Playoff national title game, of his third-quarter performance. “I was able to be on ball a little more, bring it up, kind of initiate some offense to get the defense off me. … Just opened up the floor a little bit for my teammates, but through that kind of being able to be aggressive.”

Kyle Kuzma added 22 points and 15 rebounds, and Tyus Jones had 18 points and nine assists.

Deni Avdija played with force on both ends en route to a 17-point performance, and Landry Shamet added 15 points off the bench. It all served as a reminder: If the Wizards are going to replicate parts of Oklahoma City’s organization in any way, their on-court disposition might be a good place to start.

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