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Trey Burke, Jason Smith spearhead rise in Wizards' bench play

Trey Burke, Jason Smith spearhead rise in Wizards' bench play

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

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5 observations about the Wizards at the midway point of the 2019-20 season

5 observations about the Wizards at the midway point of the 2019-20 season

The Wizards' 29-point loss to the Raptors on Friday night was the 41st game of the year, meaning Washington's 2019-20 regular season is officially halfway through.

With that in mind, here are five observations from the season so far; some expected and some unexpected...

They are who we thought they were

In some ways, this season has gone exactly how most thought it would. Bradley Beal has been an All-Star level player, but poor defense and an inexperienced roster around him has led to a team headed safely towards the lottery. They are 13-28 after 41 games, meaning they are on pace to win 26 on the season.

That's about what Vegas predicted, as evidenced by over/under win totals that stayed around 28.5. And that's what most reasonable forecasts had them being; a team with intriguing talent that was probably a year away from contending for the playoffs again.

Sheppard has found some guys

The early returns on the Tommy Sheppard era are good and that should be seen as one of the most important positives of this season so far. Just look at the gems he has acquired in a relatively short period of time as general manager. He drafted Rui Hachimura, a plug-and-play guy, with the ninth overall pick. He got Davis Bertans, Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga in trades basically for nothing. 

He got Garrison Mathews out of nowhere. He signed Ish Smith instead of giving more money to Tomas Satoransky. And even his minor deals with guys like Anzejs Pasecniks and Gary Payton II have impressed to a degree.

It is very early in his tenure, but Sheppard is showing he has the ability to find diamonds in the rough, a skill that is one of the biggest separators between GMs.

It has also become evident on social media that Sheppard is gaining some clout among fans. Given the previous distrust in the front office, that is definitely worth noting.

The injuries have been ridiculous

Though injuries happen to every team and they are ultimately no excuse, the health of the Wizards has undoubtedly been a major part of their season to this point. They have had as many as eight players missing at times due to injury, or in other words more than half of their roster.

That has included two hardship exceptions and the players acquired as a result were even starting at times. Their best players have been hurt, even Beal who had previously played 194 straight games. Lately, they have been getting healthy, but the rash of injuries was enough to leave its mark on their 2019-20 campaign as a whole.

Beal may or may not be sold on the future

Though this season has mostly gone as expected, it has been fair to wonder how Beal has handled it all, given he is far and away their best player. He signed a contract extension to be part of this, but he's used to winning more games and it's only natural for him to be frustrated with how things have gone.

Beal backed up those theories with his comments this week about the team's culture, and the whole situation is going to be worth watching closely moving forward. The Wizards' best player appears to be a bit anxious about the franchise's future. Whether they can match their timeline to contend with his remains to be seen.

The Wall thing is going to get interesting

This was also pretty easy to call going into this season. Now over 11 months into his recovery from a ruptured Achilles, John Wall is making steady progress towards a return and the debates of whether he should come back this season or not are coming into focus. 

The discourse was taken up a notch recently with NBC Sports Washington's report about him playing in three-on-three scrimmages, and then again days after with video of those games. Though he isn't quite ready to come back, he is looking good and there are still three months remaining in the Wizards' season. 

Will he be ready one month from now, or two? Even if he is, will the Wizards bring him back or wait until next season? Those are major questions with no easy answers.

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Wizards committed more turnovers against the Raptors than they have in any game in 25 years

Wizards committed more turnovers against the Raptors than they have in any game in 25 years

Whether it's good or bad, nothing the Wizards do is subtle. 

They'll score a million points and give up two million points. They'll beat the Heat, Nuggets and Celtics without Bradley Beal but also blow an 18-point fourth quarter lead to the Bulls. 

The Wizards had some turnover issues Friday night, but again, they're never subtle. 

Washington committed 28 turnovers on the way to a 29-point loss. Following the first seven minutes of play, the Wizards had seven turnovers and seven points. 

The last time the Wizards turned the ball over that much was April 2, 1994, in a 104-96 win over the Bucks. The last time an NBA team turned it over 28 times? The 2010 Suns. 

Nine Wizards players had multiple turnovers, while five players had at least three. 

Following Bradley Beal's comments criticizing the team's culture and need to develop winning habits, the Wizards' response left more than enough to be desired. Credit the Raptors defense utilizing their length and ball pressure to take advantage of when the Wizards were loose with the ball, but it takes more than good defense to turn it over 28 times. 

The bright side is this was an uncharacteristic performance for the Wizards. They currently average the 10th-fewest turnovers per game in the NBA, so there's a good chance they clean things up on Monday against the Pistons. 

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