It’s a label that no NBA player wants to see next to his name: DNP – Coach’s Decision. Washington Wizards forward Chris Singleton has found himself with that designation 15 times already this season. The second-year player appeared in each of Washington’s first 24 games—even starting eight times—until a home loss against Detroit Pistons on December 22, 2012. Over the Wizards’ next 21 games, he saw action in six of them for 30 total minutes.
In the six weeks since his bench status began, many Wizards observers have wondered what Singleton did to earn a stay in Randy Wittman’s dog house. I joked during the Wizards’ blowout win over Minnesota on January 25 that if it were a high school game, Singleton’s friends would start chants to put him in—he played three minutes of garbage time that evening. With Jan Vesely struggling to make an impact and Shelvin Mack being waived twice, Singleton’s demotion has highlighted the struggles of Ernie Grunfeld’s 2011 draft class. It’s an indictment of management when major pieces of the team’s youth movement might need to be scrapped in such a brief time. John Wall’s January 12 return has coincided with the Wizards finding success. The rotation became set and Singleton was still the odd man out. So we thought.
Washington was riding a three-game losing streak and taking a pummeling by the Spurs in San Antonio on February 2. Singleton entered the contest with 1:17 left in second quarter, with Wizards being doubled up 48-24, and immediately missed a 20-foot shot. He began the second half on the bench. Normally, that might have been it for him.
The Spurs continued to wreck the Wizards. In the middle of third quarter with San Antonio up 27, Wittman put in Singleton again. This time Chris would make his chance count. Over the next 12 minutes, Singleton sparked Wizards to a 34-15 run by knocking down all five of his shots. He excelled at defense and collected three steals. From Rashard Mobley in the TAI game recap:
Chris Singleton spent the month of January talking to John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Booker, and all the other players who spent time in fancy suits (rather than uniforms) at the end of the bench. He appeared in just five games, and averaged 0.8 points and 1.2 rebounds, and in the Wizards’ first game in February against the Grizzlies, he was a DNP-Coach’s Decision. So when Coach Wittman inserted Singleton into the game for the last 1:17 of the second quarter, it was hard to decipher if that was due to the score (the Wizards were down 48-24 at the time), or if he was ready to give Singleton a chance to impact the game.
Singleton did nothing during that 1:17, but when he re-entered the for Okafor with 6:48 left in the third (the Wizards were down 25), he came up big on offense and defense. He stole the ball from Boris Diaw, hit a step-back jumper, then stole the ball from Tony Parker and hit a 3-pointer. Singleton helped the Wizards go on a 17-4 run, and cut the Spurs lead to 12 points at the end of the third quarter. He finished with 11 points, three steals and four rebounds, and earned himself a get-off-the-bench card.
The Spurs prevailed, 96-86, but a major take-away from the loss was Singleton’s resurrection. He took advantage of time spent watching from the bench with an outstanding performance, and it correlated to team success. I asked him about his strong outing in Texas before the Wizards’ recent game against the Los Angeles Clippers.
“We were down big. I was just trying to go in there and give some energy. And knock down some open shots,” said Singleton. “Luckily the ball came my way and I just knocked them down.”
The “being ready when your name is called” line is often trotted out to explain when a bench player excels out of seemingly nowhere. But there’s truth to all oft-used clichés. The grind of practicing, warming up and then going game after game without taking off the warm up has to take a mental toll. Then, all of a sudden, with little warning, you are randomly thrown into the game. The margin of error is slim. This might be your only shot to dig your way back into the coach staff’s good graces. Staying prepared is key.
Wittman had pulled Singleton aside in Memphis (the road stop before San Antonio) and gave him an encouraging, constructive message:
“He (Wittman) told me to stay with it,” said Singleton. “Keep working. … Just more hours in the gym. Keep my conditioning. Just try to get my shot ready for when I am called.”
Wittman rewarded Singleton’s outing at the Alamo with 16 minutes at home versus the Clippers. His line was pedestrian, but he played solid defense and also had an nice put-back, reverse dunk. Washington’s fourth-quarter defense suffocated Los Angeles in the 98-90 victory.
In the following game versus the Knicks, Singleton’s offensive confidence was beaming. During a second-half run, he knocked down several jumpers. He finished with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting in 22 minutes. Wittman closed the game out with Singleton at the power forward spot, and it worked; the Wizards beat New York, 106-96. And Singleton scored a rare television interview on Comcast Sports Washington’s post-game show.
Against New Jersey on Friday, Singleton continued to shine on the defensive end and was instrumental in holding the Nets to a season-low shooting percentage (32.9%) in Washington’s 89-74 victory. His spectacular plus-16 in plus/minus was second-best on the Wizards.
In these past four games, Singleton has averaged 7.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 0.8 assists, 0.8 blocks, and a plus-6.8 plus/minus over 20 minutes per contest. His shooting totals are 13-for-23 on field goals (57%), 2-for-6 on 3-pointers (33%), and 3-for-4 on free-throws (75%). Singleton only has committed one turnover over this span.
I recently lamented at Wittman’s unwillingness to go small in a loss to Sacramento. Singleton’s improved play has recently forced the coach to jettison his conservative, two bigs closing approach for a lineup that includes Singleton, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster at the same time. With “Wall Ball” hawking the point, Webster/Ariza/Singleton disrupting the passing lanes, and Nene or Okafor roaming the paint, the Wizards have turned into of the league’s best defensive teams.
Singleton’s versatility has allowed this style to prosper in three decisive home wins. His ability to slide over to the four spot and guard bigs or wings on defensive switches has been significant.
“I played a little in college. It is no different,” Singleton said when discussing his flexibility to play power forward. “Just trying to match up with bigger guys now that you are in the pros. I am prepared for it. I got all the tools that I need. I just got to go out there and make plays.”
Due to Singleton’s reemergence, it might be premature to consider the Wizards’ 2011 draft class a bust just yet. He could turn out to be a mid-value asset. (So could Jan Vesely.)
But while showing positive signs of late, Singleton’s offensive game still has a lot of room for improvement. He needs to work on his handle, and he must increase his upper body strength in order to fight for position down low. The most encouraging development is that Singleton did not hang his head or become bitter during his lack of run. He took the adversity as a challenge.
“I am one of the young guys. You look around the league, there are a lot of young guys that got to wait their turn,” Singleton told me. “That is what I am trying to do. Stay in it. Stay with it. Keep Positive. Be prepared when your time comes.”
Singleton’s refreshing perspective could be an ingredient of the recipe that he needs for professional basketball success in Washington. He’s got an NBA body, now’s he’s got to use it to consistently make an impact.