• Moe Wagner’s ankle injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Thomas Bryant’s three-week timetable opened the door for Wagner to run unencumbered as Washington’s center, but this bad break is a real shame for all parties.

    Obviously, Wagner himself is losing out on valuable developmental minutes and a chance to further establish his footing in the league. It doesn’t look like he’s dealing with a season-derailing issue with this current problem, but it is certainly a bump in the road.

    The Wizards are losing a young player who has proven himself to be a viable NBA rotation member after a forgettable rookie campaign on a team that just didn’t suit him. With Wagner down, the team is left with creaky free agent bust Ian Mahinmi and the just-signed Anzejs Pasecniks to man the center spot, and their frontcourt is further thinned out with Rui Hachimura set to miss a couple weeks, if not more.

    The real sting here is that the Wizards are missing an opportunity to see what Wagner brings in all kinds of scenarios and with a wide variety of teammates, as they’re not beholden to playing Bryant and his three-year, $25 million contract while he’s shelved – not to say that it’s the sort of megadeal that leaves a team’s hands tied, but the Wizards certainly wouldn’t dabble with giving Wagner extensive run having just made a deserved commitment to Bryant.

    Washington’s season, barring a reversal of course on Bradley Beal trade discussions, should be all about finding players to fit around Beal. Figure out who complements his game and who can help patch up for other weaknesses.

    One key area for the Wizards, unsurprisingly, is defense. As you might’ve heard, Washington is distressingly bad on that end of the floor, dead last in the league with a defensive rating of 116.1, which is 1.5 points worse than the second-last Cavs. That’s an area where Wagner can help.

    It’s not perfect, as international hoops expert Dio Nikiforos outlined in a more complete breakdown of Wagner’s game, but what he lacks in sheer athleticism he can make up for in pure energy.

    To further the hustle point, Wagner is tied with Montrezl Harrell for the league lead with 17 drawn charges. He leads the league in charges drawn per game with 0.81, well clear of second place and Aron Baynes’ 0.61 per contest.

    Both Wagner and Bryant have some issues with lateral quickness, so the Wizards won’t find an easy fix there, but to this point their numbers with Wagner on the floor give a glimmer of hope for the future.

    With Bryant on the floor, Washington’s defensive rating is an absurd 120.5. With him off, it shrinks to 111.6. With Wagner on the floor, the Wizards post a defensive rating of… you guessed it, 111.6. When Wagner is off, that number balloons back up to 116.9.

    This is not to say that Bryant is the problem with Washington’s defense – Jordan McRae is the only Wizard with more than 200 minutes and a defensive rating under 110.0 (at a ‘stingy’ 109.8) – but it’s being borne out that Wagner has a positive impact on the team’s defense overall, even if the defensive issues are really stemming from guys at other positions.

    Similarly, Wagner is not some cure-all savior here. Looking at some three-man lineups, featuring presumed ‘core’ personnel, shows that the team’s defensive rating is still not great, but at least improved with Wagner involved more often than not. All of these lineups have shared the court for more than 100 minutes, aside from the ones highlighted in yellow. Those in particular seem to be worth a longer look.

    In a season where the stakes are low, this Bryant-less stretch was the perfect opportunity to take those lineups out for extended test drives. His injury is disappointing, but it’s very much worth watching how Wagner is deployed once he returns to full health.

    Even marginal gains can be illuminating for a team in this situation, and Wagner has performed well enough to make you wonder if there’s more there. At the very least, he hasn’t been part of the problem. This was a wonderful chance to see if he could be a significant part of the solution. The Wizards will likely find a way to explore the depths of Wagner’s potential this season, but it’s still a shame that they’ve missed out on the early portion of a perfect window to do so.

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