WASHINGTON — It’s Jason Smith Day here at 106.7 The Fan, apparently.
First, we discussed his gracious act of deferring his multitude of All-Star votes to teammate John Wall.
Now, we’re here to determine whether or not the 7-foot backup big man is the Wizards’ best reserve player.
This is not a conversation we thought we would be having a few months ago when the Wizards were believed to have upgraded their bench over the offseason. After whiffing on Kevin Durant and Al Horford, among other big-name players, GM Ernie Grunfeld reversed course and rebuilt the bench by signing Smith, Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, Tomas Satoransky and Marcus Thornton, and he traded a future second-round pick for Trey Burke.
Between those six players, Grunfeld dished out $126.9 million over 19 years. He also gave $5.5 million over seven years to undrafted free agents Danuel House, Daniel Ochefu and Sheldon McClellan; of that trio, only McClellan has played more than 40 minutes total this season.
On paper, this looked like a much-improved bench unit over the likes of Garrett Temple, Ramon Sessions, Drew Gooden, Jared Dudley, Alan Anderson and Nene — the Wizards were expected to miss Nene, but with him having missed roughly of third of his games over the previous five seasons (he played in just 277 of 410 regular-season games), some consistency was sorely needed.
Two things have foiled that strategy.
First, Mahinmi has missed all but 14 minutes of the season due to lingering knee problems. The biggest free-agent signing of the offseason, Mahinmi was expected to improve the interior defense and give Washington another physical force in the paint. With him out every night, the reserves have been forced to rely on Smith and occasionally Nicholson as their safety net on defense, a sure recipe for disaster.
Second, Grunfeld and his staff signed several players who they hoped simply needed a change of scenery to develop properly. Nicholson was considered by many to be underutilized in Orlando, having been buried on the depth chart behind frontcourt players such as Aaron Gordon, Tobias Harris, Ersan Ilyasova, Nicola Vucevic and Channing Frye. It was hoped that, upon receiving consistent playing time and an established spot in the rotation, Nicholson could become a useful scorer for Washington.
Burke, a former player of the year in college, never put it together in the pros when he was playing for the Utah Jazz. He had seen his playing time rapidly decrease and he was quickly being phased out of the rotation. The Wizards gave up very little to bring him aboard, and the hope was he could regain that spark he had at Michigan and help provide some scoring off the bench while allowing John Wall to rest.
Satoransky was a virtual unknown, having played overseas the entirety of his career up until this season. He was considered an exceptional athlete with good court vision and a decent jump shot, but it’s never easy to translate an international player’s game to the NBA.
Of those three players, not one has lived up to expectations. Nicholson has mostly fallen out of the rotation, despite the Wizards still missing Mahinmi and lacking frontcourt depth, and he’s played just 211 total minutes all season. Burke has played just 12.3 minutes per game, forcing Wall to play a team-high 36.5 minutes per game just a few months after having surgery on both knees. Satoransky is almost completely forgotten about at this point, and he played just 44 minutes in all of December.
Marcus Thornton has been more or less as expected. He was brought aboard to be a shooter off the bench, and he is leading the reserves in field-goal attempts per game (6.4). He is shooting just 40 percent from the field and averaging barely more than one assist per game, and he was left on the bench in favor of McClellan in Friday night’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Meanwhile, the Wizards’ fifth big man is quietly doing exactly was he brought to Washington to do. Jason Smith, playing a much larger role than anticipated due to Mahinmi’s absence, is averaging 3.9 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.5 blocks per game while shooting .536 from the floor. In December, he averaged a respectable 5.3 points and 2.8 rebounds despite playing just 10.3 minutes per game, and over his past 11 games, he’s averaging 6.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 0.7 blocks in 12 minutes per game.
So, this might be a tough question for Wizards fans to hear but, is Jason Smith the best player on the Wizards bench?
The list of contenders is as follows: Smith, Thornton, Burke, Kelly Oubre. Burke has the best individual game of the season to his name, having dropped 27 points in a win over the Brooklyn Nets. Oubre has played the most (616 minutes, about 18.7 per game) and Thornton has scored the most (219 points, 6.6 per game).
But Burke and Thornton are arguably the team’s worst defenders, with only Nicholson daring to argue, and despite being the two main backup guards, they’re averaging just 2.5 assists per game combined. Per NBA.com, there are 45 bench players in the league who individually average at least 2.5 assists per game, including scoring specialist Jamal Crawford (2.7 per game).
Burke is shooting a career-high .457 from the field while Oubre is shooting just .415 and Thornton is shooting .400. Burke’s Offensive Rating (the points the team scores per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) is 103, as is Oubre’s, and Thornton’s is 101 — all higher than Smith’s 99. But Smith’s 108 Defensive Rating (the points the team allows per 100 possessions when he’s on the court) is 108, lower than Oubre’s (109), Thornton’s (111) and Burke’s (114).
Statistically, Smith might not be the best non-starter Washington employs. But he is certainly trending upward and has had several games where he shows legitimate value as a help defender and as a jump shooter. Oubre has shown a knack for playing the passing lanes, but his on-ball defense has been suspect at best this season. Burke is a volume shooter who does little to generate offense for the bench, and Thornton is a shooter who is shooting well below the league standard.
Referring back to our earlier question of whether or not Smith is the team’s best reserve — the answer might not be “yes,” but, remarkably, it’s getting harder and harder to defiantly say “no.”
Reminder: We’re talking about a bench unit that ranks 29th in scoring (23.6 points per game), 30th in Defensive Rating (110.9) and 30th in Net Rating (minus-9.0). Take the title of “best Wizards bench player” with an enormous grain of salt.