Wizards preseason: Bilal Coulibaly debuts; Kyle Kuzma, Jordan Poole lead

The Washington Wizards went 2-0 during their first week of the preseason, securing a 145-82 win over the shorthanded Cairns Taipans of Australia’s NBL on Tuesday and a 98-92 comeback victory against the Charlotte Hornets on Thursday, both at Capital One Arena.

They’ve got two preseason games left — on Wednesday at the New York Knicks and Friday at the Toronto Raptors — before Coach Wes Unseld Jr. whittles down the roster for the Oct. 25 season opener.

Here are five takeaways from the first two games:

Unseld said during training camp the starting lineup for the first preseason game would probably have little resemblance to his starters for the regular season, but he seems to have found at least part of a group he likes.

Buckner: How do the Wizards find their leader? Start with stature, not salary.

Point guard Tyus Jones, guard Jordan Poole, rookie forward Bilal Coulibaly, forward Kyle Kuzma and center Daniel Gafford opened both preseason games. Four of those players look to be no-brainers — Gafford recovered from a left elbow sprain in time to occupy his starting spot from last season — but Coulibaly was an intriguing selection.

The 19-year-old overachieved alongside his more seasoned teammates given how Unseld and the front office have been managing expectations, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if Unseld was just testing Coulibaly’s mettle with fourth-year forward Deni Avdija unavailable to play because of back tightness. Avdija sat out both preseason games, although he warmed up ahead of Thursday’s bout and Unseld said he was a “full participant” in practice Wednesday.

Unseld said Tuesday that Avdija will be competing for that starting spot when he is back to full health. That tracks with the team’s developmental timeline for their rookie — Unseld has made it clear the team plans to bring along Coulibaly slowly and steadily — and for all the defensive potential the lengthy Frenchman has, Avdija is a more robust and experienced defensive option.

That’s not to say Coulibaly didn’t impress in his first two games in a Wizards uniform. Seats at Capital One Arena were mostly, unsurprisingly, empty Thursday, but those who were there were on their feet when the teenager racked up 10 points in the third quarter on 4-for-6 shooting, including two smooth three-pointers, against Charlotte.

Coulibaly did a little bit of everything in the first two preseason games. Against Cairns he had five points, six rebounds, three assists, three steals and one block in 20 minutes. He was flashier against the Hornets and had 12 points, five rebounds, one assist, four steals and one block.

“That’s just what I do,” Coulibaly said of his first-quarter block on Bryce McGowens. “I’ve been blocking shots [for] a long time. I love to do that. It makes me feel confident.”

All the length Unseld and Co. have been raving about since the NBA draft was on display, but Coulibaly’s self-assuredness was just as noteworthy.

“I feel pretty confident. I’ve been playing basketball [for] a long time, so that’s just another game. I’m not trying to put pressure on [myself] and just play the game,” Coulibaly said. “Now [I’ve played] my first real NBA games, I couldn’t wait for it. I’ve been waiting for that for so long, so I’m just trying to get on court and do whatever I can.”

Kuzma has distinguished himself early as Washington’s on-court leader. The seventh-year forward paced the team with 22 points on 7-for-10 shooting against Cairns on Tuesday and led again with 19 points on 8-for-16 shooting Thursday. Poole, the Wizards’ other big-name acquisition of the summer (Kuzma technically chose to return to Washington in free agency), had 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting Tuesday and 11 points on just 2-for-13 shooting Thursday.

Off the court, Poole leads quietly and in other ways. Coulibaly said Poole is constantly encouraging him to ask questions because “he says he didn’t ask enough questions his rookie year.” The former Golden State Warrior stepped between Gafford and an official Thursday when Gafford was complaining about a call to keep his teammate calm and keep the game moving. He and Kuzma were both engaged on the bench and celebrated their teammates late in the fourth quarter long after their nights had ended.

Kyle Kuzma got what he wanted with the Wizards

As for vocal leadership, Jones is commonly cited as having the most impactful voice on the team.

“There’s a level of composure with him that’s comforting for all the guys on the floor,” Unseld said of the point guard. “He does a great job of reading me. … I leave him alone.”

The Wizards didn’t have much trouble on defense against Cairns, which had just nine players Tuesday, but Charlotte presented more of a challenge. The Hornets pounded Washington in transition and had 13 offensive rebounds while the Wizards had none in the first half. That imbalance flipped in Washington’s favor in the second half and the Wizards came back to win with a 35-17 fourth quarter, but Unseld wasn’t pleased with the start.

“We knew that was a strength of theirs, and we didn’t negate that strength. It’s not just on [Gafford] or the [centers] — that’s a team that does that at an elite level. It’s got to just be a mind-set that we’re going to be maybe outmatched size-wise some nights, but just having the urgency and awareness to hunt and hit guys, read the flight of the ball, the little details and not ball-watch,” Unseld said. “ … It’s got to be a mind-set shift. If we’re going to be a solid defensive team, we have to close possessions.”

The surprise of the preseason so far has come from the end of the Wizards bench, where 6-foot-6, 235-pound Eugene Omoruyi lies in wait. The third-year forward from Nigeria by way of Oregon has bounced from Dallas to Oklahoma City (where General Manager Will Dawkins was before coming to Washington) to Detroit before the Wizards signed him to a two-way contract in July.

Unseld called Omoruyi an “energizer bunny” after he scored 16 points — all in the fourth quarter — Tuesday, and Thursday he made an impact on the other end in helping to lead the Wizards’ defensive turnaround.

“I can be the best defender on this team,” Omoruyi said when asked in an interview what he’s trying to prove to the front office. “Being one of the best defenders in this league has been my goal, so bringing that, and my communication. Getting every other guy locked in from my energy, that’s the biggest thing for me.”

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