|Proven Wizards open against potential-rich 76ers|
WASHINGTON -- The Washington Wizards turned in one of the NBA's surprise campaigns a year ago and enter the 2017-18 season among the Eastern Conference favorites.
If Joel Embiid can stay on the court more often than not, the Philadelphia 76ers might be the team making the biggest rise.
Following a 49-win season, All-star guard John Wall and the Wizards open the regular season at home Wednesday night against the Sixers.
The Wizards spent the offseason thinking about coming up one game short of reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Washington lost a tense seven-game series to Boston. Unlike the revamped Celtics, the Wizards largely kept their core intact and with good reason.
Wall finished second in the NBA in assists and tied backcourt partner Bradley Beal with a team-high 23.1 points per game. Small forward Otto Porter was among the league leaders in 3-point shooting and Markieff Morris provided a two-way threat at the power forward slot.
"We know we are capable of being a top team in the East," Beal said. "We know what we have and what we are capable of doing."
Washington's path to the conference finals perhaps became easier on the NBA's first night when Boston's Gordon Hayward suffered a fractured ankle.
For now, the Wizards must focus on the long haul -- and get by possibly the first month of the season without Morris, who underwent sports hernia surgery before training camp tipped off. Jason Smith, free agent signee Mike Scott and third-year forward Kelly Oubre Jr. will help fill those moments. Coach Scott Brooks and his staff had a few weeks to prep for this eventuality.
"I thought we did a lot of good things in training camp but now the fun begins," Brooks said. "I thought a lot of good things happened in training camp. The ball movement was outstanding. We definitely have to improve our team defense. All in all, great preseason."
Embiid, one of the league's top young talents and an engaging player, only played in 31 games last season. Of course, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2014 draft didn't play in either of his first two seasons because of leg and ankle injuries.
Those medical matters didn't prevent Philadelphia from signing "The Process" to a massive extension earlier this month, but the Sixers remain cautious with their prized asset.
The opening night plan involves the 7-footer playing 16 minutes. Embiid isn't down with the plan.
"That's (garbage)," he said using more colorful language after practice Tuesday, according to CSNphilly.com. "I wish I was playing more minutes. I think I'm ready for more than I don't know whatever number they have."
Even without Embiid, Philadelphia won both home games against Washington last season. Now the 76ers add the last two No. 1 overall picks in the NBA Draft. Ben Simmons, a crafty forward with point guard skills, missed all of last season with an injury. He enters his first season a true favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Guard Markelle Fultz, the top pick in the 2017 class, might challenge Simmons, but a shoulder injury is limiting the University of Washington product early on. Fultz, a D.C. area native, will make his NBA debut coming off the bench.
Forwards Dario Saric and Robert Covington along with free-agent addition J.J. Redick help round out a core that looks like a playoff contender. That's not something the 76ers sniffed since finishing 35-31 during the shortened 2011-12 season. Philadelphia won only 56 games over the past three seasons with half coming in 2016-17.
"I think this is a big year for the whole team and me personally," Embiid said. "I feel like I've got something to prove, too. So I want to be out there with my teammates and win some games."