Wizards

Once-Forsaken Wizards Bind Together for Best Stretch Yet

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Just a week after looking as dead as they ever have, the Washington Wizards find themselves back on top of the Eastern Conference.

Well, that is to say that their three-game winning streak is the longest active such stretch of any Eastern team. The fact is that Washington was eliminated from playoff contention long ago, almost two full months before season’s end, but the Wiz are still eager to snag any small victory they can before they’re forced to face a long offseason of adjustments. 

There are no exceptional must-have prospects awaiting whatever team wins the draft lottery on May 12, providing little incentive for the Wizards to roll over and take bludgeonings when they’re already isolated in the lowest of tiers. The Pistons hold the NBA’s worst record at 12-60, with Washington’s recent burst of life pushing them two whole games ahead in the standings.

Three-straight victories marks the longest consecutive run of the team’s otherwise-unfortunate 14-58 season, and it’s provided fans with some positive contributions from the players. Many of the veterans who soaked up early-season minutes have departed for greener pastures, leaving the keys to youngsters and journeymen just looking to break through in the bigs. 

These Wizards have performed well by exerting positive effort and playing as a team, toppling the Sacramento Kings, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls over three tight outings. Only one of those matchups arrived against a playoff team in the Kings, but their new-and-improved process leaves a lot to like.

Role Players Filling Stars’ Shoes

Kyle Kuzma is still the top option on offense when he plays, dropping occasional impact outings like he did with his 31-point bomb over Sacramento, but he’s been a spotty March presence while he’s battled various minor injuries.

Corey Kispert was one of the biggest winners of last week’s results, with injuries to many of his fellow rotational contributors pushing him into the position of the de facto go-to scorer.

That’s a spot generally unfamiliar to the shooter, as he’s often used as an off-ball sniper and closeout attacker on offense, but he elevated to the occasion. He’s averaged 17.3 points on 48.7% shooting over the streak, making 40% of his three-pointers on 6.7 tries a night. 

The wing somehow upped his production with even less space than he’s usually offered, as regular starters and spacers in Kuzma and Tyus Jones have missed several games this month. Kispert has prevailed with open hands, a growing inclination to shoot on the move and off the bounce, and reliable inside finishing. He’s finishing 72.2% of all shots within five feet, the top true guard on a list full of centers and burly forwards. He’s been a model of consistency all game and in the clutch, showing up every night when Washington needs a bucket.

Deni Avdija has been similarly aggressive, hunting his shots with the same assertiveness he’s boasted for the majority of the season. He’s still knocking down his threes at a respectable clip, balancing his outside shots with opportunities at the irons. 

His scoring has been especially valuable, with his team-leading 22 points on Saturday lifting the Wizards above the Raptors, as he’s also tasked with shouldering unenviable defensive burdens on a night-to-night basis. He contested 22 shots in that game, allowing only eight conversions.

Jordan Poole has also sustained as a dependable contributor in recent days, but not in the ways we may have expected. 

He’s still hoisting shots at a high volume to middling results, but his playmaking has come alive in the absence of Jones. The guard notched a season-high 12 assists in that Toronto game, proving himself an adept ball mover when he wants to be. His pick-and-roll coordination and accuracy feeding cutters and spraying out to shooters have been instrumental in Washington capitalizing on easier shots, something they often struggle with. He thrives without the need for sets, simply locating opportunities as he sees them.

Former Benchwarmers Elevated into the Regular Rotation

Richaun Holmes first arrived in Washington as compensation for Daniel Gafford in his move to Dallas. He didn’t initially offer much to get excited about, as he only played 237 minutes across 23 games as a Maverick, but he’s looked everything like the departed rim protector and rebounder he was traded for in late March.

The center has averaged 11.6 points in his last three games, stealing the minutes Marvin Bagley III looked to have secured when he first landed in the District. Holmes’ rebounding and motor have proved the difference, as he’s wrangled in 16, 14 and 15 boards in his last three outings, respectively. 

He’s not an overwhelming physical force at 6-foot-10, but his instincts on the offensive glass have helped the Wizards create second-chance points. He’s notched at least six offensive rebounds in every game of the stretch, outmuscling his competition on the block and timing his jumps to repeatedly find the ball first.

Holmes has been far from a one-way presence, having recorded at least one block in five-straight games. The same generality can be said for Johnny Davis, who’s looked to come out of his shell with greater responsibilities put on his plate.

The second-year lottery pick has earned occasional starts with his dogged defense, getting right in the faces of volume shot-makers like Sacramento’s Malik Monk, Toronto’s Gradey Dick and Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan. He’s stout on the ball, and resilient at keeping his assignments from releasing over him.

He’s often held back from greater minute totals due to his raw offense, but he gave his coaches something to validate his role with a pair of made three-pointers on Monday. Davis’ confidence looks that much more enhanced as he looks to shake his early- and mid-season struggles.

Davis is one of several young contributors who have taken advantage in filling minutes on the Brian Keefe-coached skeleton crew Wizards and tightening up the screws on defense. They’ve posted the league’s second-highest defensive rating over the last three games, allowing only 105 points per 100 possessions.

Justin Champagnie and Jules Bernard have particularly made their presences known as timely shotmakers and high-feel ball-movers, but Jared Butler has particularly impressed as a backup point guard. He racked up 13 assists just one game after Poole’s 12, a fundamentally sound floor general capable of slashing towards the paint and finishing possessions on his own terms.

Lastly, Tristan Vukcevic has been a nice breath of fresh air for the Wizards since joining the team earlier in the week. 

The 2023 second-round pick finally made his Washington debut after fulfilling his responsibilities in the EuroLeague, and he’s been a welcome addition to the lineup. He offers the same seven-foot spacing intrigue as Danilo Gallinari or Mike Muscala from earlier this season, but he has the young legs to at least compete on defense.

He nailed the first shot he took on an open look from three, and he introduced himself to Washington fans as a big with a shooter’s confidence. He missed a few more shots before activating his stroke again in the fourth quarter, stepping back behind the arc and drilling another triple with a relaxed form. The Wizards have yet to lose with Vukcevic in the locker room (2-0).

The effort from a team knowing they have no meaningful games on the horizon has been inspiring, especially considering how few of these current role players were in Washington’s rotation throughout the first two-thirds of the season. 

Not everyone named is in the team’s long-term plans, but many of them have played their way into next year’s roster. The final result of winning or losing is largely dependent on the options coach Keefe has to work with, but their recent energetic process is a critical building block in instilling competitive fire over the course of a rebuild. This has been the Wizards’ best week of the season yet.

About Henry J. Brown

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