Pacers host Wizards in battle of non-playoff squads

The new-look Washington Wizards hope to begin putting the puzzle pieces in place on Wednesday when they open the season against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis.

Under the direction of new president of basketball operations Michael Winger, the retooling Wizards shipped All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal to Phoenix and versatile Kristaps Porzingis to Boston in a bid to acquire assets.

Kyle Kuzma, who signed a four-year, $90 million contract in the offseason, joins newcomers Jordan Poole (Golden State) and Tyus Jones (Memphis) to lead an offense that likely will encounter several hiccups along the way in 2023-24.

All three players posted career-high averages in points and assists last season, with Kuzma recording 21.2 and 3.7, Poole posting 20.4 and 4.5 and Jones adding 10.3 and 5.2, respectively. Kuzma also made a career-best 160 3-pointers.

“I can see us putting a lot of sequences together – a lot of 9-0 runs, 8-0 runs, going into the timeout, crowd’s going crazy,” Poole said, per Monumental Sports Network. “But we need (the fans’) support. If they like exciting basketball, if they like seeing young players get up and down, having fun, everybody should be there.”

Speaking of young players, Washington reportedly addressed its youth by signing Deni Avdija to a four-year, $55 million extension. The ninth overall pick of the 2020 NBA Draft, Avdija averaged career highs in points (9.2), rebounds (6.4) and assists (2.8) in 76 games (40 starts) last season.

Bilal Coulibaly, 19, put together a strong preseason after being selected by the Pacers with the seventh overall pick of the 2023 NBA Draft. The Frenchman immediately was traded to Washington along with a pair of draft picks for Jarace Walker, who was taken with the No. 8 pick of the 2023 NBA Draft.

“He’s a pro and he’s been a pro for a little while. So, naturally you see that,” Kuzma said of Coulibaly, per Monumental Sports Network. “I do agree with him; I would hate for people to be like ‘Oh, I’m just 19 or I’m young.’ Like, nah, he can play defense at this level now. He can play basketball at this level now.

“I just love his mentality. I love his open-mindedness to tips. I think that’s something amazing, him being inquisitive. It’s a great trait to have.”

Like the Wizards, the Pacers finished 35-47 last season and missed out on the playoffs.

However, optimism abounds for Indiana, which handed Tyrese Haliburton a five-year maximum contract extension this summer worth as much as $260 million after the guard turned in his first All-Star performance last season.

Haliburton averaged career highs of 20.7 points and 10.4 assists per game while adding 3.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals.

“(Haliburton) has an appetite for the responsibility that comes with being a franchise player,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said, per the Indianapolis Star. “There’s very little not to love about the guy.”

Shot-blocking machine Myles Turner and 3-point shooter Buddy Hield could play pivotal roles in ending the Pacers’ three-year postseason drought.

Indiana is looking for bigger things from Bennedict Mathurin, who finished fourth in the NBA Rookie of the Year voting.

The Pacers also lured Bruce Brown from Denver and acquired Obi Toppin from New York in the offseason.