NBA coaches love versatile players. Randy Wittman is no exception. Considering the Wizards coach spent the early stages of training camp and preseason practices focusing on team defense, there is a certain fondness for one Trevor Ariza.
"He kind of leads us with that," Wittman said of the agile 6-foot-8 forward in regards to the team's defensive mindset. The natural small forward has legitimately earned a reputation around the league as a premier ball-stopper. That's the case whether the lengthy Ariza is guarding those bigger and brawnier or smaller and quicker.
"He’s a guy that just, the luxury of guarding different guys," WIttman continued following Monday's practice. "From LeBron James to [Dwyane] Wade, to Eric Gordon, to Jrue Holiday. Those kind of spectrum of players. We don’t have anybody else that can probably do that, the way he does. And then you feed off that."
Entering Tuesday's preseason game at Detroit and despite the absence of center Emeka Okafor, Washington held opponents to lower field goal and 3-point shooting percentages than during last season's top 10 league-wide effort. Washington's preseason finale takes place Wednesday night in Cleveland against the Cavaliers.
The defensive wheels came off during a slumbering first half in the Wizards' eventual loss to the Pistons. Detroit drained early and often from beyond the arc - and the Wizards had their own issues offensively from long range.
Ariza took part in the outside clanking against the Pistons, missing all four of his 3-point attempts. Regardless, the veteran says he's certainly more comfortable at this point in the training camp process than compared to his first season with the team.
"I'm just playing basketball to be honest," Ariza said on Monday. "Last year, I was struggling a little bit, not sure of what's going on. I know what's going on now. I'm just playing. Even though my shots aren't going in or whatever the case may be, I'm just not going to worry about it. Keep taking, I know they're going to fall."
Even though Martell Webster started at small forward much of last season, Wittman has turned to Ariza in that spot during the preseason. Webster has endorsed that plan and Ariza, who is a free agent next summer, hasn't been shy about saying he belongs with the starting five. Whether or not those preferences factor into Wittman's decision heading into the regular season, the coach will count on Ariza's energy and smarts to lead the defensive charge.
"If you’re on the floor with a guy like that, that’s getting his hands on a lot of balls, causing a lot of havoc, you’re right there, too, now, pretty alive right now," Wittman said. "It’s kind of one of those things that trickles down when you play with him from a defensive standpoint."