Trey Burke is a long way from the misery of being on a new team, and for that matter so is Jason Smith. Both have played better lately, but Friday's performance was the cherry on top to a season that began on a sour note with the Wizards.
Smith, acquired as a free agent, was an active body behind Marcin Gortat and now knocking down the mid-range jump shots that he's known for making. Burke, acquired in an offseason trade, is a point guard by definition but actually a scorer as he filled the void left without Bradley Beal as he sat with a right ankle sprain.
The duo combined for 37 of the Wizards' 50 bench points, a long way from what Marcin Gortat regrettably called "the worst bench in the league" after a Nov. 12 loss to the Chicago Bulls.
"With Brad down, I knew I was going to have to come in and be a spark off the bench and be ready to play," said Burke, who shot 10-for-12, including 5-for-5 on threes, for a game-high 27 points in a 118-95 win over the Brooklyn Nets. “I got to the free-throw line early and shots just started looking good. I just got to continue to keep it up and go for it.”
Smith is developing a reputation for his hustle play. Even though he's far from the most athletic player on the floor, the effort is always there. Earlier in the season, he had confusion with Burke on defending screens-and-rolls and they were allowing drives to the basket. Burke immediately took ownership for the breakdowns.
Neither player looked confident in their role or playing off teammates. That appears to be a thing of the past now as both also look more steady defensively as well as the Wizards (16-16) are at .500 for the first time this season.
"We were thinking a little too much about the offense at the beginning of the season," said Smith, who had two blocked shots to spark the defense early and fnished with 10 points and eight rebounds in just 18 minutes. "Now that we've run it we've kind of drilled it over, over and over and it's become second nature. When it's second nature you don't really think about it. So now you can focus on your shot, following through, attacking the basket, getting to the free-throw line. Our first unit has been doing a great job all season. That second unit in the beginning had a little bit of a lag. Now we've corrected that."
While Burke and Smith have fallen out of the rotations for Scott Brooks, they've solidifed their spots. Marcus Thornton has always been a staple but his efficiency has increased. He had eight points on 3-for-6 shooting but also created with five assists. He made both of his threes.
"We were just hoping that somebody would come in and give us 10-12 points, and to my surprise, it was 27. I know Trey can score, but you don’t expect 27," Brooks said. "I thought he played an excellent ballgame, both sides of the floor. thought he was defensively really good.
"He’s not a point guard, he’s not a two. He’s a guard. He can make plays, but he can score. Naturally, he’s a very good scorer. That’s what has changed my view of him as this season has gone. I’m starting to use him more as trying to get us some points off of some pin-downs (and) some pick-and-rolls. I think he’s done a good job of taking that role and doing well in it. Tonight was one of those nights for him. We don’t expect that every night and he doesn’t have to provide that once Brad comes back."
The reserves struggled to score half of the season-high 50 points they produced Friday. The Wizards managed to end the month 9-3 despite Kelly Oubre not appearing to be the same player since his concussion.
If Tomas Satoransky regains his confidence in his shot and Ian Mahinmi can ever get back on the court following his knee procedures, the Wizards may have a much deeper roster going into the second half of the season. Sheldon McClellan, a rookie who started for the third time with Beal out, had eight points in 24 minutes. He's getting his chance. As long as Mahinmi stays out, Daniel Ochefu will get spot minutes.
Now can the Wizards get over .500, something they failed to do repeatedly in what ended up being a 41-41 record for the 2015-16 season, and stay there?
MORE WIZARDS: Takeways from Wizards' blowout win