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Morning tip: Defensive abilities separate Wall and Beal from most backcourts

Morning tip: Defensive abilities separate Wall and Beal from most backcourts

Suddenly, out of nowhere, John Wall and Bradley Beal are the "in" backcourt again, and the lost 41-41 season that was 2015-16 is all forgotten. Bygones. 

Except, it shouldn't be. How quickly the narrative turned on a duo that was Wall's broken left hand and wrist from an Eastern Conference Finals appearance when he was undercut by Jeff Teague in Game 1 of the semifinals vs. the Atlanta Hawks.

It was a small sample size but in the 10 games of that playoff run that included sweep of heavily favored Toronto in the first round validated their claim to best backcourt in the East. 

Then came the fallout. Wall played through two bad knees last season -- both required surgery May 5 -- and still averaged 20 points and 10 assists. Beal played a career-low 55 games because of a stress reaction for the fourth year in a row to his lower right leg. 

Wall went from being an All-Star starter to a reserve again. Damian Lillard jumped him in the national conversation as being the better point guard, and that point was further cemented after he scored 41 points in an overtime win over the Wizards. No one ever talks about Beal, but he probably should've been a first-time All-Star this season. 

A 2-8 start this season understandably led to no attention and low expectations. But Wall was playing his way back into shape as he beat the timetable from returning from his surgeries. The Wizards won 17 games in a row at home before losing in overtime to the Cavaliers on Monday night. 

Going into tonight's game at the Brooklyn Nets, they have a chance to run the table until the All-Star break that begins after Feb. 16 with as many as 34 wins. A 50-win season would be in reach for the first time since 1979 when they were the Bullets and advanced to the NBA Finals. 

If someone has said: "If John Wall ever develops his mid-range game ..." they haven't been watching not just this season but the previous two.

If someone has said: "If Bradley Beal can develop his game off the bounce ..." they haven't been watching as he has set a career-high assists (nine) and reached eight twice already this season. 

[RELATED: Harlan calls Wiz-Cavs 'best regular season game' he's seen]

Wall is averaging career-highs across the board and has 30 double-doubles with no other guard in the East being anywhere near half that total. Beal has scored 41 or more points three times and had five or more assists 14 times. 

Statistically, an argument can be made for most top-flight players as there are enough numbers to support an argument for anyone. While they matter, the eye test still matters, too.

Most numbers, unfortunately, have to do with offense. When is the last time you've heard an analysis of the lock-and-trail technique of Beal? (For the record, it's pretty damn good. Isaiah Thomas? Not so much).

If anything beyond a player's individual stats matter -- creating for others, deflections, close outs -- then no one should be shocked by the ascension of Wall and Beal other than they're both healthy at the same time.

When Wall went out in that playoff series in 2015, did Beal shrink without his playmaker in that series with the Hawks? He averaged 23.7 points, 7.3 assists and 4.7 rebounds minus Wall before they lost in six games to the No. 1 seed. Wall returned to play through the broken hand to average a double-double wearing little protection.

Beal signed for $128 million this summer in what was a no-brainer negotiation for president Ernie Grunfeld. Where else was he going to find a 23-year-old shooter with his upside on the open market who is a two-way player? Let Beal walk with nothing in return and make a move to sign Dwyane Wade in free agency? There was no other choice but to max Beal. None. There was no better option on the market in terms of age, talent, attitude and upside. None. This decision was as easy as an uncontested layup and no need to debate this. None.

[RELATED: LeBron admits he got away with travel vs. Wizards]

The final number for Beal's contact was much bigger than what Wall signed for in 2013 under a much small salary cap ($80 million), but where else were the Wizards going to find a pass-first point guard who had a track record for making everyone around him better; who is 6-4 and can post up Thomas, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker and Kyrie Irving; and who can score just 10 points and still be the best player on the floor?

Smart contracts are more about the ceiling -- what a player can grow into during the life of a deal -- and not as much about where he's at during the moment he signed (Gordon Hayward). It's a futures market. There are players out there with more accomplishments, All-Star apperances and national reputations but where will they be during he life of the max deal. Will they still be max-worthy or will their returns diminish with age (Carmelo Anthony).

Beal's leg injuries never required surgery. It was an overuse injury that's cured by monitoring his workload not just in games but practices which have been tamped down under coach Scott Brooks. 

Now that he's at optimum health and Wall is, too, the it shows how such short-sighted views on both could've backfired. Now they're exploding into the NBA's national consciousness. How ridiculous are those early-season, "It's time to trade John Wall and start over" blog posts, sound? 

The roster had to be turned over to the two young stars to see what they were made of, having to co-exist and lead by example. They drew chuckles for making too much of a "funeral" game vs. the hated Celtics and dominated them. Wall was questioned for calling Monday's game the biggest regular season game of his career and then helped make it one of the most memorable finishes of all time in a showdown with LeBron James.

Maybe, instead of rolling those eyes use them to watch. Relatively speaking, it's easy to be a one-way player who scores 30 points a game. It's more difficult to defend Irving for an entire game, hold him to 8-for-24 shooting (yes, he did hit big shots in overtime) and average 23 points and 10.4 assists yourself like Wall. Or 22.2 points, 3.7 assists and 39% from three-point range like Beal who takes on equally tough assignments. 

Now that the Wizards are two years removed from Paul Pierce, the credit has no choice to go where it belongs. All the barriers have been removed. It's their team, and they're just not the future. Wall and Beal are the now. 

[RELATED: What's been the reason for Wizards' turnaround this season?]

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What the Wizards hope to clean up in their final two games of the season

What the Wizards hope to clean up in their final two games of the season

Individual progress and development has taken a front seat over wins and losses for the Wizards in Orlando, as Washington remains winless in the NBA's restart, now at 0-6 and 0-9 overall, if you include the exhibition schedule. So, as they ponder their final two games of the season - against the Celtics and Bucks - what would more would the coaching staff like to see?

Head coach Scott Brooks has been trying to drill in some lessons to his young players and he wants to see some strides in key areas. He held a lengthy film session on Saturday, but did not get what he was hoping for in Sunday's loss to Oklahoma City.

"They’re all teachable moments," Brooks said. "We can’t keep making the same mistakes over and over. I said [at halftime] ‘either you’re not understanding it or I’m not doing a good job of explaining it.’"

As for specifics, Brooks said he wants his team to do a better job of stopping the ball on defense. Opponents are getting into the lane off the dribble far too easily and it is dismantling their defensive gameplan.

He also wants his team to execute better with outside shots. The Wizards are 21st out of the 22 teams in Orlando in three-pointers made (9.0/g), attempts (27.8/g) and percentage (32.3%). Not having Davis Bertans and Bradley Beal has done them no favors in those categories.

RELATED: WIZARDS FALL TO 0-6 IN BUBBLE

And perhaps most noticeable to Brooks has been the team's tendency to be pushed around physically. 

"You’ve gotta make a stand," Brooks said. "I thought [the Thunder's] physicality in the start of the game bothered us and it put us back on our heels. We played timid."

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Brooks highlighted rookie Rui Hachimura as a player who could put up more of a fight. On Sunday, Hachimura matched up at times with Chris Paul, who did a good job preventing him from reaching his favorite spots on the floor.

"You have to catch it deeper and go right through the guy’s chest. He’s going to learn that," Brooks said. "He’s still learning the league and the defenses that are going to be thrown at him."

Ish Smith is the most experienced player in the Wizards' rotation with 10 years of NBA service. He thinks the Wizards collectively are allowing other teams to be the aggressors. He says they need to cut harder on offense and be more assertive initiating contact on defense.

But overall, he thinks the young players on the team are learning that games with higher stakes are played differently.

"It’s such a good time for us because everybody that’s here is trying to get to the playoffs. So, they’re playing at a high, high level," he said. 

"Sometimes, no offense to the regular season and all 82 games, but some games you catch a team on a back-to-back or with injuries and different things. This is a good thing for all of us, to show us the level that you have to play at. The physicality that you have to play with, the level that you have to play at not just to make it to the playoffs but to be a champion."

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5 takeaways from Wizards' loss to Thunder, as they fall to 0-6 in restart

5 takeaways from Wizards' loss to Thunder, as they fall to 0-6 in restart

The Washington Wizards lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder 121-103 on Sunday afternoon in Orlando. Here are five takeaways from what went down...

The losing continues

Disney World is said to be the place 'Where Dreams Come True,' but after nine total games in the restart the Wizards are still dreaming of their first win.

Okay, that was corny. But there are only so many ways to say the same thing over and over. The Wizards are getting what they wanted in terms of player development but have done nothing to dispute the fact they were the worst team in the standings invited to Orlando.

On Sunday against the Thunder, they never once looked like a team capable of the upset. They went down 10-0 early and never recovered, ultimately losing by 18 points.

The more the Wizards lose, the stranger things could get in the standings. They now have to win their final two games to avoid the bizarre situation of having a worse record, but also worse lottery odds, than the Charlotte Hornets. And if they lose their final two, they will also pass the Chicago Bulls in that regard.

We are close to being ensured of total draft lottery chaos. It seems obvious one of the three teams is going to get really unlucky thanks to the NBA's lottery rule change.

No offense

The Wizards were predicted by many to have some trouble offensively in the bubble without Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans and their combined 45.9 points per game. That has gone according to expectations, as their scoring has dropped off a cliff through six games now.

The Wizards entered Sunday's game with a 102.7 offensive rating, which is third-worst among the 22 teams in Orlando and nearly eight points below their season average (110.5). And they struggled yet again, only scoring 103 points against the Thunder. They had only 48 points at halftime.

The Wizards shot just 41.3 percent from the field. They went 9-for-36 (25%) from three in what was just a dreadful day from the perimeter.

It didn't help their cause that Shabazz Napier was out with an ankle injury. He is one of the most gifted scorers and best shooters remaining on the roster. 

It might be tough for the Wizards to reverse this trend before they head home. Their two remaining opponents -- the Celtics and Bucks -- each rank top-four in defensive rating.

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Bonga played well

The biggest bright spot for the Wizards in this game was arguably Isaac Bonga, who came through with a solid game of 14 points and eight rebounds. He had some rough moments defensively guarding some really good players like Chris Paul and Danilo Gallinari, but overall he played well and showed flashes of what he could provide the Wizards next season if he sticks around.

Bonga is in an interesting category of the Wizards' roster where it is difficult to project whether he will be a part of the rotation next season, without knowing the makeup of their roster. Other young guys like Rui Hachimura, Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown Jr. are pretty much certain to play key roles, barring something unforeseen. But Bonga is right on the line because he plays a position the Wizards could stand to upgrade in the offseason.

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There is value in what he does due to his versatility and length. But the Wizards may also be able to find someone who gives them more at the three-spot. His best role next season is probably as a glue guy for the second unit.

Though his numbers were boosted by garbage time, Jerome Robinson also had himself a day in what was a bounceback performance. He had 19 points and shot 4-for-9 from three.

A model for Schofield

There is no getting around the fact that Admiral Schofield has not had the best showing in the restart. He lost a bunch of weight and came into camp by all accounts in great shape, but it just hasn't translated to the floor.

Schofield continues to look like a player who doesn't have a defined role or a good idea of what his niche will ultimately be. But that's okay, he is still a rookie and was a second round pick. Overnight success was never expected for him.

The role that could lead to long-term success for Schofield may have been on display in this game with Thunder wing Luguentz Dort. He went undrafted last summer, but has quickly become a reliable piece for OKC as a physical defensive disruptor. He is built a bit like Schofield, just a few inches shorter. And he uses his strength and quickness to wreak havoc on players of all positions.

Schofield could bring some of the same attributes to the table, but in watching the two play you can see a big difference in their approach. Dort is relentlessly aggressive, initiating contact all over the place, likely knowing that no one can match his strength. Schofield has that type of force, he just hasn't found a way to use it yet. 

Napier should be careful

Napier's injury was just the latest negative development for him in what has not been a great stay at Disney World. In five games, he's averaging just 10.2 points on 41.9 percent shooting. It is a small sample size, but he just hasn't taken off as one of the team's primary scorers as it seemed he likely would.

Now that he's injured, it would make sense if Napier plays things very safely in the final two games. He is set to hit free agency at the end of the season and, with less money set to go around due to the coronavirus' effect on league finances, he can't afford to hurt his stock any further. He definitely can't risk a serious injury.

The other side of that coin would be that maybe Napier sees an opportunity to finish strong. If he doesn't do that, it will be fair to wonder if he should have opted out of the restart like Bertans did.

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