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Bradley Beal and Otto Porter show why they're stars in their own right with John Wall out

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Bradley Beal and Otto Porter show why they're stars in their own right with John Wall out

With little salary cap room this past summer to make significant additions to their roster, the Wizards essentially need to improve from within to improve much at all this season. It was an offseason of unprecedented change around the NBA. Yet the Wizards have rested their hopes on young players continuing to ascend.

Through nine games, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter don't just appear to be better, as many young players do year-over-year, they look leaps and bounds above what they were just months ago. 

Once known as a three-point specialist, Beal has developed inside-outside versatility on offense only seen in MVP candidates. Otto Porter has expanded his game on both ends of the floor, emerging as a capable third scoring option and one of the best in the NBA at swiping steals.

It was easy to notice the growth of the Wizards as a team on Sunday night, as John Wall sat on the sidelines, out due to a sprained left shoulder. The Wizards beat the very-good Toronto Raptors in a game they may not win even one year ago. Long a team where one key player absence would sink the ship, that is not the case anymore.

Yes, Kyle Lowry was ejected in the second quarter. But Wall's supporting cast pitched in to take out a playoff team on the road and following a stretch of four losses in five games.

[PODCAST: PAUL PIERCE GOES 1-ON-1 TO TALK WIZARDS]

Beal played opposite DeMar DeRozan, another one of the NBA's best shooting guards, and for a night belonged in a completely different category. While DeRozan couldn't find his rhythm, Beal was lights-out. He dropped 38 points on 16-for-26 shooting, his third straight game of 35 points or more and his second straight shooting 60 percent or better.

Beal cleary worked on his ball-handling this offseason, building off his career-year in 2016-17. After proving he could stay healthy, Beal now uses more complex dribble combinations and attacks the rim with even more confidence, no matter who is standing in the lane.

Porter's improvement getting steals is no accident, either. He is getting smarter at the gambles he takes, whether it be from watching film or retaining more information from scouting reports. 

Porter helped limit DeRozan to his 8-of-21 shooting and stuffed the box score with 19 points, five rebounds, two steals and a block. He shot 8-for-13 from the field and 3-for-4 from three.

After nine games, Beal is averaging 25.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Those aren't just All-Star numbers, as many have him predicted to be in Los Angeles this February, that level of production would put Beal in the All-NBA conversation.

Porter is averaging 18.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game, all while shooting 56.9 percent from the field and 52.5 percent from three. Those stats could put Porter in the All-Star Game.

Getting three All-Stars in one season is not an easy feat. The Wizards haven't seen that happen since 1974-75 when Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes all earned the honor. 

There is a long road to February, but with a few weeks of the 2017-18 NBA season having passed, the Wizards have two players in Beal and Porter, both 24, who are raising the bar for themselves and quickly.

[RELATED: LOWRY EJECTED VS. WIZARDS, KISSES KID ON WAY OFF COURT]

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John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

John Wall says Wizards will do less talking this year, but could be best team he's played on

The Wizards in recent years have made a habit of trying to speak things into existence and then not having them actually come into existence. They have talked the talk and then sometimes haven't walked the walk.

A few instances come to mind, including Bradley Beal saying of the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers that "they didn't want to see us" in the playoffs. Beal also said in November that the Washington was the best team in the East, just hours before James scored 57 points in the Wizards' building.

John Wall has made similar proclamations in the past, usually about himself, including how he is the best point guard in the Eastern Conference. Now, these statements were all relatively normal for professional athletes who pride themselves in always feeling like they are the best player on the floor or the field. It's part of the mindset that makes them who they are.

But when those statements are made and then not backed up, they can be tough to defend, and especially for a Wizards team which last season seemed to overlook the lesser teams and suffered a down year because of it.

Wall insists all that is about to change. In his 1-on-1 interview with Chris Miller on our Wizards Tipoff podcast, Wall said the message this year will be much different, much more muted than it has been in the past.

"We want to go out with a different mindset and a different focus. We're not trying to go in and think we're a team that has already established something and got respect from people. We have to earn that respect and that means going out and competing every night against the good teams or the bad teams," he said.

That doesn't mean Wall isn't confident. His belief in himself hasn't wavered and, in fact, he may believe in his team more now than ever. That's because he is happy with the offseason the front office has produced.

They signed Dwight Howard and Jeff Green in free agency, traded for Austin Rivers and drafted Troy Brown, Jr. in the first round. All should help the Wizards improve between Howard representing an upgrade at starting center and the others providing much-needed depth.

When Wall was asked by Chris if this is the most complete team he has played with in Washington, Wall left no doubts.

"Yeah, for sure. I definitely think so," he said. "I think it gives us the opportunity where we don't have to play as many minutes. That's the key. At the end of the year, you kind of fall short because you're fatigued. Nobody uses that as an excuse. You play and try to get into the best shape possible. But if you're playing 24 minutes, the whole half, and then 24 minutes and the whole half, you kind of get tired at some point. I think those guys can take a little of the burden and pressure off of us at times."

Listen to Wall's full 1-on-1 interview on the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

Austin Rivers believes he can help the Wizards on defense as much as anything

When asked at his introductory press conference for how he will fit on the Wizards' roster from a basketball perspective, guard Austin Rivers didn't first cite his three-point shooting, his ability to affect games scoring off the bench or his speed to run the floor with John Wall and Bradley Beal. The first thing he point to was his defense.

That may have surprised some people out there as Rivers has long been known for his scoring ability and not so much his skills on the other end. It's not that he can't play defense, it's just that most of the highlights he's produced over the years have been due to his high-flying finishes at the rim and wicked pull-up jumper from three-point range.

Defense, though, is something Rivers takes pride in and he hopes to continue developing as a defender in Washington.

"With how much Brad and John have to do every night, for them to not have to always guard the best guard on the other team, that's something I can come in here and do. Try to bring that competitive spirit and be one of the defenders on the team," Rivers said.

Rivers' defensive ability has produced some controversy among Wizards fans and media members on social media. Some insist he does not bring value on that end of the floor, while some numbers suggest he does have some defensive potential.

Last season, Rivers averaged a career-high 1.2 steals per game. He was tied for fifth on the Clippers in defensive win shares.

However, his 113 defensive rating was his worst since 2013-14. It was an outlier on the Clippers and not in the good way. He also ranked nowhere near the top of the league in deflections or contested three-point shots, two hustle stats that guys like Wall and Beal fair well in.

Rivers points to two attributes that he believes make him a strong perimeter defender. One is his versatility and the other you could call scrappiness.

"On defense [the Wizards] can switch one through three or one through four. I think that gives us a lot of dangerous options," he said.

As for his scrappiness, Rivers says it comes from the early days of his career.

"I had to figure out ways to be effective without [a jumpshot] and that's how I became a defender. I guess everything happens for a reason, right? I'm happy I did have those early career struggles because it made me find a side of me that I didn't do [early on]. Because I promise you I didn't play any defense at Duke," he said.

The last line drew laughter from those gathered at his introductory press conference. Rivers insists that he now takes that end of the floor very seriously. The Wizards certainly hope he can back up his words.

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