Wizards’ G League players made the most of Summer League

How

LAS VEGAS — Late in the Washington Wizards’ second Summer League game last week, Jaime Echenique drove his 6-foot-11 frame to the low post on back-to-back possessions, drawing a three-point play each time. After the first, he turned to the bench and got a laugh and clap from head coach Zach Guthrie. After the second, he turned to the bench again and the entire coaching staff was cracking up.

The joke? Echenique, a 25-year-old center built like a sturdy NBA big man of yore, was not supposed to be posting up.

“I told him no post-ups,” Guthrie said with a laugh. “But then he did it anyway and scored, so I said you get one. And then he came down and did it again so I said, ‘Okay, fine. Two.’”

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Guthrie’s rule had a purpose. Echenique plays like a traditional center, mainly in the paint, for the Wizards’ G League affiliate, the Capital City Go-Go. Guthrie spent Summer League trying to bring the big man’s game outside of the lane and into the present.

For the whopping seven players on Wizards’ Summer League roster who spent time with the Go-Go this season, that’s what this month’s Vegas showcase was all about.

Unlike most NBA clubs, Washington didn’t have its young centerpieces such as Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert play since both had significant roles during the season. This year’s lottery pick, Johnny Davis, underwhelmed, averaging 8.3 points and shooting 27.6 percent from the field in three games while playing through some back tightness.

But Echenique, Jordan Schakel, Vernon Carey Jr. and Jordan Goodwin — players who even the most die-hard Wizards fans might struggle to point out of a lineup, the guys who toil in the G League trenches — showed up.

“The G League guys are used to being in this environment,” Capital City Go-Go Coach Mike Williams said. “It’s not a shock to their system.”

That level of comfort in a large, bustling NBA ecosystem is exactly what Washington is trying to foster in its G League players. While the purpose of the G League broadly is to operate as a farm system of spells for NBA teams, the Wizards pride themselves on having an especially close relationship with the Go-Go.

Johnny Davis makes his Wizards debut in NBA summer league

Washington’s eventual goal is to create a pool of in-house talent from which the Wizards can pull coaches, front office members and players. Williams worked on both the Wizards’ and Go-Go staffs before he was named the G League head coach. Ryan Richman, currently an assistant on Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr.’s staff, coached the Go-Go before he was promoted. Amber Nichols, the Go-Go’s general manager, works closely with Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard and Washington’s front office to ensure the two teams are on the same page. At the same time, she gets to build up her own bona fides as an NBA decision-maker.

As for the players, Sheppard has yet to turn a Go-Go player into a significant Wizards contributor. But when the Wizards needed bodies during a coronavirus outbreak during the 2021-22 season, they called up five players from the Go-Go.

“We want to become the Miami’s, the Golden State’s, the Oklahoma City’s, the teams bring these guys in at the G League level and then they see a pathway to the NBA,” Nichols said. “You’ve got to cultivate them in your own system, in your own house.”

One way Washington does that is by keeping its G League players close — literally. Before Echenique made history as the first Colombian to play in the NBA when he was called up in December, he was a regular friendly face at Wizards practices because the Wizards and the Go-Go share training facilities. Not every NBA club even houses its G League team in the same state. That proximity helps the Go-Go attract talent, Nichols said.

“I hear this from agents all the time. Seeing a parent club invest in the G League organization, it makes them want to put their players in this type of organization. There’s consistent investment in their development and they’re constantly getting evaluated by people in an NBA front office,” Nichols said. “That’s big time for what we’re trying to do.”

Eleven takeaways from 11 days at Las Vegas Summer League

So too was having a Summer League squad packed with G Leaguers. Guthrie spent the 11-day showcase getting the Capital City Go-Go players out of their comfort zone and more in an NBA frame of mind. In the team’s first three games, he brought Echenique off the bench and tried to keep his minutes low.

“Not because he doesn’t deserve more, but because that’s his role in the NBA. Because there’s probably a center on that roster that plays 35, 36 minutes a game,” Guthrie said. “I think there’s a great quote from Alex Caruso in JJ Reddick’s podcast. He said, ‘You’ve got to understand what job you’re trying out for in the NBA.’ Some of these guys in the G League think they’re trying out to be the CEO. They’re actually going to be much lower down the totem pole.”

Echenique saw that first hand when he was called up to the Wizards in December. He was with the team for five games, got on the floor just once, for three minutes, but left with a wealth of knowledge and sense of motivation he’d never before felt. The game he returned to the Capital City Go-Go, he notched a career-high 28 points and nine rebounds.

This month, he led the Summer League squad with 6.4 rebounds off the bench and was its third-leading scorer averaging 10.4 points per game.

“For me, getting called up was an appetizer,” Echenique said. “It just woke up a feeling of hunger, it was like, ‘I belong there.’ now [Guthrie] is helping me understand the adaptation from the G League to the NBA so much more. I feel like I’m playing at my highest level.”

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