Finally Seeing The Wall-Beal Tandem
Friday’s 114-101 win over the wounded Timberwolves marked my first time covering this year’s Washington Wizards team in person. Getting the live experience crystallized a few different things about the team and where they are going that should be worth following going forward:
1. Those who judged this team without John Wall did so at their own peril- On Nov. 26, then-ESPN employee John Hollinger wrote a piece praising the 7-5 Bobcats and burying the 0-11 Wizards. In that piece, he described Washington being without Wall for the entire season at that point and Nene for nine of eleven as “a serious drag on its results” before continuing to trash the Wizards who just passed Charlotte in the standings a mere 30 games later. In fact, the team sits at 5-3 since Wall’s return despite playing five of those eight games on the road against Western Conference foes. As often occurs with teams still in the rebuilding phase, part of the problem with missing a major talent is that the rest of the team does not have the capability of shifting from a smaller role to a bigger role without the team losing most of its advantages. As such, the Wizards lost more than just John Wall during his injury- they had to move everyone else up the line with insufficient depth at point guard.
Now that Wall has been back on the floor, it proves hard to deny that the Wizards look like a totally different team. Before the game, Minnesota interim coach Terry Porter talked about this and noted that the Wizards played at a faster pace and were harder to defend with Wall on the court.
Randy Wittman talked before and after Wall’s first start of the season about how he needed to play with the first unit and “you gotta learn how to play with John.”
In Friday’s game, it proved easy to see how much better the rest of the team played with Wall holding the reins. He scored well himself in transition and when necessary and did a stronger than expected job of creating open looks for everyone else on the court. Both Nene and A.J. Price complimented Wall after the game and each should benefit greatly in their own way from the team’s best player getting closer to 100%.
2. In fact, no player should benefit more from the return of John Wall than Bradley Beal. While Beal showed meaningful signs of improvement after a dreadful start even before Wall returned to the court, he has jumped another level since then. Over the course of the season, Beal has shot an astonishing 49 percent on corner threes (compared with 27% for above the break threes). Both of those numbers need to come together a little bit more but Beal will only get better looks from the corner as he and Wall continue to figure each other out and Wall attracts more defensive eyes and attention.
On Friday, Beal also showed his athleticism with a nice chasedown block and plenty of examples of a sweet shooting stroke that will serve him well. As someone who has mostly covered the Warriors the past few seasons, there were more than a few moments where Beal reminded me of Klay Thompson as a rookie. Both possess pretty and repeatable shooting motions and Beal has the advantage of not thinking every open shot is a must-shoot situation (Thompson's biggest problem thus far). While the Wall/Beal pairing looks solid short and long-term, one challenge there will be the fact that neither can slide over to guard small forwards, meaning they narrow the window of players they can put around that core since any other guard would not play major minutes with them as long as both are healthy. That said, there are often benefits to that kind of stability because management can take their resources and put them in other positions and niches knowing they have quality in those two building blocks.
3. The Wizards still need a major infusion of talent outside of their starting guards- Watching Washington play this season, I noticed something that got illustrated again Friday night: the team has a surprisingly solid amount of rotation players. The problem appears to be that just about everyone outside of Wall and Beal has to play a bigger role than what they are best suited for. Nene and Emeka Okafor both should be major cogs of a big man rotation, yet it feels like both would work best as the second or third man in that rotation so they could take advantage of the opponents keying on that No. 1 guy. The same goes for Kevin Seraphin and possibly Trevor Booker as a potential fourth big (second off the bench) and Jan Vesely as an athletic wild card that gets the crowd engaged. Perimeter guys like Trevor Ariza, Martell Webster and Jordan Crawford will benefit from playing with Wall and Beal, though I doubt any of them marks the right long-term fit as a starter next to them. Fortunately for Washington, they still have the financial flexibility to make a big splash happen if they get management in place that can actually pull it off. After such a rough start to the season, Washington should be able to get another meaningful contributor through the draft while all of their big money other than Nene comes off the books in 2014. The Wizards should have the pieces to make a nice unbalanced trade in terms of salary this summer or next trade deadline if they do not believe they can draw a high-level free agent outright and need to have the right people in place beforehand to maximize that flexibility.
Over the weeks and months to come, I greatly look forward to seeing this team grow with the talent they already have while eyeing the changes that can make them a more dangerous team moving forward.