When the Wizards held training camp back in late September, head coach Scott Brooks set the goals and expectations for the 2018-19 season. Members of the huddle ranged from All-Stars John Wall and Bradley Beal to newcomers Dwight Howard and Jeff Green to non-guaranteed training camp invitees such as Chasson Randle, Chris Chiozza, and Tiwian Kendley.
Brooks told the group of players, coaches, training staff, and more: “We want to win every day.” That meant putting in the extra work behind closed doors, taking care of one’s body, and so much more that goes into building a winning culture.
But this story isn’t about the Wizards directly. It’s about how the organization’s G League team – the Capital City Go-Go – took that concept and created a success story in its first season with a first-time general manager in Pops Mensah-Bonsu and first-year head coach in Jarell Christian.
“That’s been one of our mantras coming into the season, that we want to win every day,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “We hold our guys accountable, we trust each other, and we respect each other. That’s what we hang our hat on, that’s what we try to do every single day. We try to harp on our principles and our culture. It’s definitely a process, but it’s been going well so far.”
In the inaugural season of the Go-Go, the de facto minor league team of the Wizards is fourth in the G League’s Eastern Conference. After starting the season 8-9, the Go-Go have won nine of their last 12 games. Capital City became one of only four expansion teams in the league’s history to win 15 of its first 25 games. Considering what the roster looked like to begin the season, the Go-Go have been one of the G League’s biggest success stories this year.
“It’s evolved a little bit quicker than I expected it to,” Christian explained. “But I think we’ve gotten to a good place because of the character of guys we have in here. The culture is something that our associate head coach Damian Cotter always talks about – work on it or not, you’re going to develop a culture, so you better develop one that you want. That’s something that we’re very cognizant of each day. You gotta protect it. It’s character, it’s integrity, it’s trust, it’s gratitude. I think our guys just stepping up and really focusing on their development.”
Development is the key word. Since day one, both Mensah-Bonsu and Christian have emphasized development as the team’s number one priority. They’ve seen progress, such as Chasson Randle impressing enough to earn the first guaranteed contract for a Go-Go player ever when he signed with the Wizards, Hawaii standout Noah Allen really developing a consistent 3-point shot, and George Washington product Isaiah Armwood going from out of the rotation to averaging a double-double during recent play before he got hurt.
“Development, at the core, that’s what it is,” said Mensah-Bonsu. “You look at our roster now and look at it in the beginning, it’s very different. Not because we wanted to make changes, but because guys have been called up, guys have been injured. To still be able to win games and respond to that type of adversity is a testament to the coaches and player development.”
When the season began, the Go-Go looked good on paper: two-way players Jordan McRae and Devin Robinson would be featured heavily. Wizards rookie Troy Brown Jr. and second-year big man Thomas Bryant were expected to be assigned to the G League often. Veteran forward Lavoy Allen was in the mix, while Nuggets two-way forward Thomas Welsh was on the team early. Randle was slated to start after playing for Real Madrid last season. Rookie guards Chris Chiozza and Tiwian Kendley were also invited to Wizards training camp and expected to crack the Go-Go rotation.
As it turns out, Brown Jr. has come down for only eight games to get some minutes and develop more. Bryant only appeared in one game and is now the starting center for the Wizards. Lavoy Allen is no longer with the team and the Nuggets reassigned Welsh after seven games. Randle also only appeared in seven Go-Go games and is now the Wizards backup point guard. But, the other guys who have stuck around the majority of the season have certainly made their mark.
— Capital City Go-Go (@CapitalCityGoGo) January 19, 2019
After recovering from left shoulder surgery last season, McRae leads the G League in scoring at 29.8 points per game and set the G League season-high with 54 points against the Maine Red Claws earlier this month. A member of the Cavaliers’ 2015-16 championship team, McRae is a veteran who has meshed well with the younger guys and embraced his role on both the Go-Go and Wizards. He’s also mentored Brown Jr. this season, especially with the two of them and Robinson going up and down so much.
Robinson, who was the Wizards’ two-way player last season as well, has shown legitimate growth. After posting averages of 13.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 49.2% shooting in 44 games with the then-Delaware 87ers last season, Robinson averaging 19.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on 54.8% shooting. His dunks are often seen all over highlight reels, but Brooks, Christian, and others around the franchise have confirmed impressive development outside of his freakish athleticism. Robinson has also become one of the leaders of the team, setting the tone since October.
— Capital City Go-Go (@CapitalCityGoGo) January 14, 2019
Chiozza may be one of the biggest revelations. After spending time with the Wizards Summer League team and receiving an invite to training camp, the defensive-minded point guard has facilitated the Go-Go’s since Randle’s deal became guaranteed with the Wizards. Chiozza is averaging 12.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 1.7 steals per game on 39.8% 3-point shooting and is the only Go-Go player to have started every game this season. The first-year player from Florida ranks in the top 12 in the league in both total assists (181) and steals (48). Even though he’s a rookie, Chiozza has become another leader of the team and the Go-Go’s floor general.
Christian has deployed 21 different starting lineups this season, which is second in the G League only to the South Bay Lakers. During this past Friday’s games against the Grand Rapids Drive, the Go-Go’s starting lineup only featured one opening night starter in Chiozza. Still, without McRae, Robinson, Randle, Brown Jr., Bryant, Lavoy Allen, or any of the other expected contributors this season, the Go-Go still took two of three this week against the Drive.
Mensah-Bonsu has praised Christian and his staff for being able to get the most out of his players, especially considering how short-handed they’ve been and with players coming in and out. The staff has focused on their core development players: two-way players, rookies, and assignees. But, they have consistently worked with players who may not be in the rotation, getting them ready for when their numbers may be called.
That next man up mentality from both the coaching staff and players has paid dividends. The Go-Go’s bench play has been the difference this season, featuring many players who were not on the opening day roster. Isaiah Armwood, Noah Allen, Kellen Dunham, Pe’Shon Howard, and Darel Poirier have stepped up as reserves and been inserted into the starting lineup when the team has been shorthanded.
“Our priorities are the two-ways, the rookies, and the assignees,” Mensah-Bonsu said, “but when we don’t have them, what are we going to do? We have to put a system in place for that. These guys are always ready.”
On the court, the Go-Go’s identity is defense. During its 9-3 stretch in January, the Go-Go rank fourth in the G League in defensive rating, allowing 104.2 points per 100 possessions. In November and December, the Go-Go ranked 19th in defensive rating.
Considering all of the injuries in January and player movement throughout the season, that’s an impressive improvement. Still, the team’s defensive improvements are not a coincidence. The team goes through defensive drills and situations for the first hour of most practices, and then gets into offensive sets.
“The whole first hour of practice is defense,” Randle recalled. “And that’s rare. That’s some Jeff Van Gundy stuff. I played for him. He’s the type of guy – first hour we’re going to break down defense and get this thing right.”
In practice, Capital City has a drill where they have to get three stops in a row to get a point. The Wizards actually did the drill at training camp, and Christian took it and ran with it.
“We try to get as many points as we can, and that gets us going,” Robinson explained. “We know our style of play up and down, run and gun. Only way to do that – we have to play defense. From the start of training camp, all we did was do defensive drills, defensive slides, closing out, being in position, and then we started working on offense.”
Considering the NBA has become a league where scoring is growing and growing, the defensive emphasis Christian and has staff have put in place says a lot about what they want to do on gamedays. Capital City is one of three teams in the G League to be in the top 10 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. Their 22.2 points per game off turnovers and 18.1 opponent turnover percentage both rank second in the G League.
“It’s just the mentality of we’re going to defend first and then score,” Brown Jr. added. “Just that, going in from player 1 to player 12 on the team – it doesn’t matter. When you come in, you’re going to play defense. We’re going to score off that. We play our best when we’re playing in transition. He [Christian] built that culture around that [defense].”
The G League isn’t only about growing players, it’s about getting management, coaches, medical staff, and others experience for the next level as well. It’s a partnership at the G League level: the Go-Go staff wants to develop these players, but the players need to help them grow too. For example, Chiozza was given the freedom to call the offense, just like Randle did when he played for the Go-Go earlier in the season. If they see something the coaching staff may not see, they’ll tell Christian and have a play in mind to run.
“He has a lot of faith in me, he just instills that in me every day,” Chiozza said of Christian. “He wants me to be a vocal leader and continue to run the team. It helps my confidence. Right now, I’m playing with some of the most confidence I’ve ever had, and that’s one of the reasons.”
That’s a testament to the development of the Go-Go. For a player to say he’s playing with the most confidence of his basketball life, it goes to show that the system is working outside of just what the team’s record says. Over the team’s past eight games, Chiozza has averaged 17.1 points and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 55.9% from deep, showing his growth as a scorer this season. During his four years at Florida, he never averaged more than 11 points per game or shot better than 35% from 3-point range. Christian wants to develop players’ intangibles as much as their skills, something that gets lost often in player development. Conidence is one of those intangibles.
“I should have the utmost trust in the people on the court to execute whatever the game plan may be,” Christian said. “The one person who really helped me with that early this year was Chasson Randle. He would come to the timeout and say, ‘This is what they’re doing; we can go to this action.’ He was basically like another coach that was helping me, and that was great for my growth. I trust my players – if I don’t trust them in the heat of the moment, then I’m not doing my job.”
The focus isn’t just on the basketball court. Players credit Mensah-Bonsu and Christian for developing them as men and serving as mentors for young players. As a former player, Mensah-Bonsu knows what it’s like to be on this professional basketball journey. He played in the NBA and abroad, but also played in what was then the D-League and now G League. Mensah-Bonsu will even participate in practice with the rest of the coaching staff.
“He does his best to make sure we’re taken care of on and off the court,” Brown Jr., who has had a crazy schedule going up and down the past two months with the Go-Go, said of Mensah-Bonsu. “He’s kind of like that mentor that makes sure everybody will be ok.”
Christian came into this job knowing that building personal relationships would be one of his strengths. It’s been harder than expected managing personalities, but he’s gotten more comfortable as the season has gone on. As he says, it’s easier to coach players in the heat of the moment if you know them personally.
One of the players he has mentored is Robinson. They talk about how Robinson needs to be a leader, bring his patented energy every day, and hold his teammates accountable. He knows Christian will do everything he can to make him the best player he can be, but values their personal relationship.
“Our conversations are mainly about me growing as a man,” Robinson said. “He wants me to grow more as a man than a basketball player. We just talk about life on and off the court, talk about things that can help me develop to be a better player, how to be a better professional.”
— Capital City Go-Go (@CapitalCityGoGo) November 10, 2018
The players aren’t the only ones who have found mentors this season. Christian and Scott Brooks were together one year in Oklahoma City when Brooks coached the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder and Christian was an assistant with the G League’s Oklahoma City Blue. According to Christian, Brooks texts him almost every day. When his crazy schedule has allowed it, Brooks has been to several Go-Go games this season. The players have noticed, and it’s been important for them to see their development and growth does matter.
“It’s really special,” Christian said. “It’s something I don’t take for granted. I don’t know how many G League and NBA teams who have that relationship. It speaks volumes to him as a person for him to spend time and think about us during a chaotic NBA season.”
Players current, old, and new have enjoyed their time with the Go-Go. It’s been an extension of the Wizards in terms of sharing facilities, court space, and being able to spend time with NBA players and staff. They’ve praised the work that management and the coaching staff has done, building a winning culture that is stemmed from accountability, trust, and respect.
“The job that they’re doing right now is incredible,” Randle said, “but the group of guys that they have – great dudes, great players, great teammates, and they know how to play the game. When I was down there and we would lose, I felt like we should never lose.”
“I think it’s gone well,” McRae added. “Most of the time, you get a new team, a first time GM, a first time head coach, starting point guard is fresh out of college, a lot of young guys on our team – you normally go through a lot of growing pains. We haven’t gone through as much – we’re third in the East, we’re in the playoffs. I think from the coaching staff to [Wizards President] Ernie [Grunfeld] and [Wizards Vice President of Basketball Operations] Tommy [Sheppard] just developing this team from not having to go through a down year is great.”
6th win in a row, nbd. pic.twitter.com/QqIvCgJSPp
— Capital City Go-Go (@CapitalCityGoGo) January 13, 2019
Development will always be the priority, but something has to be said about how much the team has won. In a league where often players are trying to play for individual accolades, the Go-Go play together and for each other. So many players have remained ready and produced when called upon. There’s no doubt guys are getting better every single day. But, how do development and winning intersect? Is part of winning developing and is part of developing winning?
“For us, we play so well together because everybody just wants to get better,” Chiozza said. “Everybody wants to win. No matter what, winning helps you. You may not have a good game, but winning makes you look good.”
“I think it’s a two-way street,” Christian explained. “Obviously, you want to create a winning culture. I think part of developing is developing winning habits, and in order to do that, you have to win. There are a few situations that happen throughout the course of the season, where myself and Pops are willing to lose a few games if it means the group is going to grow. It’s tough in the moment to make some of those decisions, but I think that’s why Pops and I are so aligned. We want to do it the right way, and we’re willing to sacrifice a game or two for the overall development of our individuals.”
At this point, the Capital City Go-Go have found success over 29 games. Mensah-Bonsu said he would be lying if he said he saw this much winning coming, but he knew the team had a good roster to start the season. It’s been the fluctuation in that roster from game to game that has made their winning season a bit more improbable. The adversity they’ve overcome between the roster ups and downs and recent injuries is not going unnoticed.
“As good as winning is, development is key,” Mensah-Bonsu said. “I always tell people when they ask me what I want to accomplish is develop these players. If they develop, they’re better and we’re going to win. Development is part of winning. As you can see, the way these players and these coaches are responding to adversity is a true testament to who they are, to the system we have put in place, the culture we have tried to develop. I really feel like it’s something these players can establish to the point that anybody who comes in here is going to be like, ‘This is the Go-Go Way.’”