Beal explained: “Everyone eats.” And for anyone looking for friction between the two stars, Beal’s line offered a feast for debate – though his intention was innocent and he was telling the truth.
Fast forward to the present. Beal is now the headliner, leading Washington in minutes played, shot attempts and points per game. But this weekend, the Wizards (8-6) clinched their fourth straight win and third straight win over a team ranked in the top six in the Western Conference — all without Beal. The team’s longest winning streak since last November, when Washington ripped off five straight games, came when Beal was either sidelined by health and safety protocols or working to regain his condition to play again.
While no one in the Wizards’ dressing room dropped a catchy one-liner about winning without Beal – although Latvian-born Kristaps Porzingis offered a few charming moments when searching for the right words in English – this team tapped into the same energy as the 2018 squad. It can survive without its star. And learning to be more than just Beal’s relatives should go a long way toward making Washington a playoff contender.
“It’s a long season, and folks [will be] in and out for various reasons,” coach Wes Unseld Jr. said Sunday night after the Wizards struggled to a 102-92 win about a Memphis Grizzlies team lacking vigor in Ja Morant and top players Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr.
“When that happens you can still play and compete at a high level. I think that’s part of it. [But] Nobody wants to be without their best players. … It’s a talent-focused league. You have to have talent,” Unseld continued. “The depth speaks for it. We have the ability to weather the storm but I like the fact that we can figure it out and stay afloat.”
To put it bluntly: no. No one longs for the Wizards to stay afloat with Corey Kispert as their starting two-guard. However, we see what Unseld has known about his team since the summer. That second-year-old Kispert can step in from the bench as an emergency starter and a player like Jordan Goodwin, who has a two-way contract, can appear out of nowhere Strengthening defenses and sharpening outside shooting speaks to the depth of casters.
Unseld will refer to this basis when answering why rookie Johnny Davis guarding the Wizards whom 10th overall elected in the draft may not touch the ground in NBA games. Davis has done double duty developing with the team’s in-house G-League partner and collecting DNPs for the Wizards. He has appeared in five games but, significantly, remained an afterthought during that four-game streak when Beal’s absence left a hole in the guard/wing positions that could potentially have made room for Davis.
“Because we have a traffic jam at two or three [positions]two to four, really, with versatile players, there’s not a lot of minutes,” Unseld said when discussing Davis and the roster composition.
That depth might be unrecognizable, but she’s played some sort of team basketball in support of remaining stars Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma. Though Sunday’s win wasn’t the greatest, Washington generated 26 assists (it’s matched that number only four times this year) and attempted a season-high 40 three-point attempts, accounting for 47.5 percent of them. Kispert hit both tries, Goodwin led the bench with 3-of-4 long-range shots, and Deni Avdija and Porzingis combined for 10 three-pointers. In fact, everyone ate.
“I just think how we play for each other. We make the extra pass, we cut for each other. We do some little things that might not be as visible, and those are the actual things that help us win,” said Porzingis, who scored 25 points in 7-of-15 shooting that set a game high. “And now if we get Brad back it will take even more pressure off everyone else and he can be the real one Focus.”
Porzingis looked up at the assembled reporters, seeking clarification.
“With ‘F’ or with ‘V?’ ‘F!’ Not the vocal point!” he said smiling.
If anyone’s game has had its say in the wizarding locker room lately, it’s Porzingis. Aside from Thursday’s win against the Dallas Mavericks, which Porzingis missed with a groin strain in his left groin, he looked healthier and more vigorous than he had in a while. And he used that jump in an unexpected way on Sunday, playing to jump for the fast lane, then stealing the ball and taking his entire 7-foot-3 frame for a layup across the court.
“I haven’t moved like this in a long time,” Porzingis said. “I’m feeling good at the moment. There is nothing that limits me.”
Porzingis also moved effortlessly around the arc for his six threes. As he defeated the first-quarter buzzer with a long three, a unicorn flashed across the scoreboard, highlighting the old moniker that made Porzingis one of the game’s most intriguing players when he broke through to the New York Knicks. Injuries and recovery have limited Porzingis since the 2018/19 season, but he’s rediscovering his mythical powers. Porzingis averaged 28 points in victories over the Utah Jazz and Grizzlies and has averaged more than 21 points in six games this month.
Now Beal – or the Focus – is expected to return Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“That will open everything up to everyone else. So yeah, I think that’s going to give us more – like [do] I say “gunpowder”? Or how more Ammunition! There you go,” said Porzingis.
In the last four games, Washington has also found its way thanks to its depth. Whenever a star player goes down, everyone can eat while teammates find themselves and their shots on an offense that doesn’t favor a single scorer. Now the wizards must find a way to feed their star and each other. This could make last week’s success feel like an appetizer.