Head coach Wes Unseld Jr. had to replace two of his regular starters on Thursday night with both Bradley Beal and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the league's health and safety protocols. After taking those decisions down to the wire, and opting not to tell the media during his pregame press conference to keep things close to the vest, he chose Aaron Holiday and Corey Kispert.
Holiday has regularly been a replacement when their starting guards go out, but for Kispert, a rookie, it represented several firsts. It was his first NBA start and also his first game at Madison Square Garden.
In college, Kispert's Gonzaga Bulldogs went to MSG during his freshman year, but he didn't play due to an ankle injury. Perhaps having experienced the environment, even from the bench, helped prepare him as he went off for a career-high 20 points to help lead the Wizards to their second straight victory.
"It felt good, man," Kispert said afterwards. "Obviously, all the best players that you hear about play their best games in this building, so I wanted to get out there and put my best foot forward. I had some shots drop early, I felt like I was in a rhythm early. I just went with the flow from there."
Kispert, 22, led all scorers with seven points in the first quarter and had 10 points by halftime. He made his first four shots on the night and finished shooting 6-for-7 from the field, 4-for-5 from three and 4-for-4 from the free throw line.
Kispert's four three-pointers were part of the Wizards' best night from the perimeter in months. Their 16 threes were the most they have made in a game since Oct. 22. They shot 43.2% from deep on 37 attempts.
When he didn't attempt shots himself, Kispert helped the Wizards move the ball with his passing and off-ball cuts. The Wizards had 30 assists as a team, three of which came from Kispert.
"He doesn't overdribble it. He cuts hard, moves, respaces, keeps himself shot-ready. And he let it go," Unseld Jr. said. "I thought when he made those ones early, it really kind of helped get him in a comfort zone. It's a good thing to see him grow from month to month. I think it really bodes well for his maturity and his development."
Though his minutes have been inconsistent, Kispert has been trending up lately. In his last five games, he's averaging 10.0 points while shooting 52.6% overall and 55.6% from three (3.0 3PA/g).
On a veteran team with depth at his position, Kispert has his work cut out for him to find steady playing time. Three times in the Wizards' last seven games he hasn't seen the floor at all.
But on Thursday, the Wizards needed him and he stepped up in a big way.
"He had a hell of a night," Kyle Kuzma said. "I feel like there's no better way in your rookie season to have a big game and have that in the Mecca, in the Garden. I know that's an unbelievable feeling and he'll probably remember that for the rest of his life."