Budding backcourt holds key to Wizards' success
It's the final weekend practice before the start of the regular season, and in the bowels of the Verizon Center most of the Wizards have already finished their individual work. A handful of the players lounge on the bench, chatting and joking. You get the sense that the next few days can't pass quickly enough for everyone involved, most of all the player at the opposite end of the floor ripping the net with machine-like precision.
Assistant coach Sam Cassell counts off as star guard John Wall, he of the freshly minted five-year, $80-million contract, knocks down jumper after jumper. Wall works his way all the way around the arc, sometimes spotting up, other times taking a power dribble before rising and firing.
Wall can't miss. After starting in the right corner, he has made it nearly all the way to the opposite side. Two other teammates are shooting at his basket, but he appears to not even notice their presence. These last few moments of practice are about him and the work that still remains.
Wall stops. Ten shots, ten makes. He and Cassell come together for a quick conversation, and just like that the most important player on a team with its best chance to reach the playoffs in five years calls it a day.
The second-most important player on the Wizards heads off the court early and is quickly wrangled by the media. He does a series of one-on-one interviews, projecting an ease that belies the fact that he is merely 20 years old and entering his second year in the league. That can happen when you're asked to shoulder the load, as Bradley Beal was last year when Wall missed 33 games with a knee injury.
Now the onus is on the two of them, Wall and Beal, to help the Wizards realize their potential, though head coach Randy Wittman doesn't want them to take on an undue burden.
"Obviously your best players have a big role, but I don't want them to look at it that way," Wittman said. "They just have to do their part and be who they are."
With apologies to Wittman, that sounds a bit like coachspeak. If the Wizards are to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008, much of the responsibility will fall on the starting backcourt. Luckily for Washington, Wall and Beal wouldn't have it any other way.
"We put that pressure on ourselves," Beal said. "We have no excuses now. We have all the assets and talent that we need to be able to make the playoffs. We showed that we can compete and play with the top teams in the league. It's up to us to come out, execute and get wins."
Optimism abounds in all corners of the NBA world in October, and that was on display in an event for Wizards season-ticket holders at a local amusement park after practice. The stream of fans waiting to get an autograph from Wall continued unabated for an hour. Beal's line stretched almost as far.
Of course, unlike in some cities, there's good reason for the optimism in the nation's capital. Wall didn't make his season debut until January 12 last year, but after a slow start he averaged 22.1 points and 8.1 assists per game in March and 23.9 points and 7.3 assists in April. Beal improved his scoring every month through February before injuries limited him after the All-Star break. The duo played just 25 games together last year, but the Wizards went 16-9 in those games, good for a .640 winning percentage. They were 13-44 in all their other games, translating to a winning percentage of .228. Now that both of them are healthy, both Wall and Beal said it feels like they are about to embark on their first true season as teammates.
"It does kind of feel like our first year together," Wall said. "And I think we know exactly what the other likes to do. We're building chemistry and making it stronger. We can be one of the best backcourts in the league."
There is little doubt that the Wizards would have been better had the two guards been healthy all of last season. However, looking back on it with the perspective of the offseason, it might have been a blessing in disguise. For one thing, Beal was thrust right into the spotlight, stepping onto an NBA court for the first time and immediately representing his team's best scoring option at the ripe age of 19.
"It was rough because John wasn't there, and you're looking for that mentor, that guy to feed off of instead of just being thrown into the fire like, 'OK, what do I do? I'm 19 and supposed to lead a team to victory?'" Beal said, reflecting on his first months in the NBA. "It was difficult, but at the same time it made me better mentally. It challenged me to always want to continue to get better."
At the same time, both realized what they were missing in each other. So when they had the chance to spend a large chunk of the summer working out together, they made sure to take advantage of the opportunity. When pressed for their greatest takeaway from their offseason training, the talented young guards offered different, yet equally enlightening answers.
"When you have a guy like [Wall] who's super competitive, it just makes you that much more competitive," Beal said. "There are times we argue, but we're brothers at the end of the day. We know it's going to make both of us better. And I think that's the best thing about it."
For Wall, it was more about what they were able to do away from basketball. "It was great just being around him and having an opportunity to work out with him and hang out off the court. Most of last year when I wasn't playing I was hanging with him, but it's totally different when you're not playing. When you play you get an idea of where each other wants to be, where people's sweet spots are and what people like to do."
If you ask around the Wizards' practice facility, everyone to a man will tell you how close of a bond these two former SEC standouts have formed. The two best players on a team do not have to be best friends for a team to win -- the Lakers have three Larry O'Brien trophies to attest to that -- but it certainly can't hurt and Wittman attributes part of their on-court chemistry to their off-court relationship.
"Number one, they get along. They're together a lot," Wittman said.
Indeed, the Wall-Beal pairing features all the common traits of a friendship between two guys used to being the best at what they do. There's the competitiveness in everything from off-season workouts to shooting competitions, to be sure. There's also the trash talking that comes with playing at two powerhouse programs in the same conference. Wall spent one year at Kentucky before going to the pros, while Beal spent his one-and-done year as a Florida Gator.
"When it comes to football, he doesn't speak," Beal says with a laugh. "But for basketball, we get each other pretty good here and there."
Wall has a quick rebuttal.
"He always talks about football but I'm like, 'That doesn't count. We went to school for basketball, not football.'"
Even as they try to get the upper hand in SEC supremacy, they know how to play off one another. General manager Ernie Grunfeld projected that heading into the 2012 draft. It's a large part of the reason why the Wizards made Beal the third pick that year.
"John being a pass-first point guard and Brad being a player who can space the floor, can make outside jumpers, they complement each other well," Grunfeld said. "They do different things, but the thing we like about them is they both have a lot of pride."
That pride instills in them a sense of what they can be playing alongside each other for years to come. They know it will take both of them to achieve their stated goal of making the playoffs. In a league dominated by superstars, Wall, who has garnered pre-season All-Star buzz, knows all too well what can happen if just one player is missing from the rotation.
"Look at the Thunder [in last year's playoffs]," Wall began. "They were just a different team. Kevin [Durant] was still explosive, but without Russell [Westbrook], they were totally different. When they're together, it's very scary. With me and Brad, when we're both healthy and can play, it's a totally different ball game."
If the Wizards get that kind of ball game 82 times this season, it likely won't stop there.