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How Wizards' star Bradley Beal flipped the script by asking the only question that mattered

How Wizards' star Bradley Beal flipped the script by asking the only question that mattered

One question crossed everyone’s mind inside the Washington Wizards’ crowded locker room following their 130-126 win over the Charlotte Hornets Saturday night.

Bradley Beal didn’t shy away from asking it.

“What should our expectations be this year with John out," the Wizards' leading scorer asked a handful of reporters.

John, of course, is John Wall, Beal’s backcourt partner and the long-time face of the franchise. Earlier in the evening, the team confirmed reports that the five-time All-Star point guard would undergo season-ending surgery on his troublesome left heel

Recalibrating expectations occurred immediately.

For many on the outside, the thoughts were unkind. The Wizards ended the calendar year with a disappointing 14-23 record. For a postseason berth, they must make up ground over the final 45 games without arguably their best player. 

With the medical news fresh and coming after weeks of organizational chaos, Beal sensed trepidation while waiting for a response. 

“You guys think we’re done,” he said.

Beal wasn’t confrontational, but confident and curious. The 25-year-old claimed a genuine interest in the opinions of those holding recorders. He lingered for a few moments even after a member of the team’s PR staff offered him an exit ramp.

“I think it does matter what y’all think sometimes. I mean, you guys are fans of the game,” he said.

Many celebrated Beal’s work last season when the Wizards gobbled up wins in 10 of 13 games immediately after Wall underwent a knee procedure in January. The box score numbers stood out. His mental approach and internal guidance shined brightest.

Some NBA talents are All-Star worthy. Not all are equipped to take charge. Beal, who entered the league in 2012 mature far beyond his 19 years on the planet, learned early in life he possessed those traits.

 “Leaders are born, not made,” Beal said last February in Orlando during Washington’s initial surge without Wall. “I feel like I have always been a leader ever since I was a kid. Every team I’ve been on, I’ve been a leader. Now I feel like this is what it was destined to be.”

Don’t confuse self-belief with conceit. Those in Beal’s life before NBA stardom back up his claims.

“He’s got the ‘it’ factor,” said Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan who coached Beal during the guard’s lone season at Florida. “He had at it a young age. He’s really smart. He’s bright. He’s a team guy. He’s a great worker. He knows how to impact winning. Winning is a high priority for him.”

Chasson Randle, one of the potential cult heroes on the Wizards roster, played with Beal for the gold medal-winning Team USA squad in the 2009 Under-16 World Championships.

“You could tell his greatness was on the rise,” Randle said of Beal, who led Team USA in scoring.

Last season’s shorthanded group eventually wore down without one of their two All-Star’s but kept playoff hopes alive until Wall returned late in the regular season. Their 20-21 record without their offensive engine was respectable and not far behind the eventual 43-win pace. 

Qualifying for the postseason this time remains possible in the top-heavy East. The Wizards’ remaining strength of schedule ranks 20th overall, though a brutal stretch comes soon. With Saturday’s win, Washington moved four games back of Charlotte for the seventh seed. 

Beal understands holding serve this time won’t work.

“I don’t think it will help us right now because we’re (nine) games under .500,” said a candid Beal Saturday. “We’ll need an additional (bump) to make up the games.”

However, for the front office, the focus isn’t the remaining 45 games, but the next 17. That’s the number of contests before the Feb. 7 trade deadline. At that point, if not sooner, the Wizards must determine if they should add help, stay pat, or pull the ripcord.

The real intrigue lies behind door number three. Should the inconsistencies continue or long-term planning takes hold, trading away expiring contracts or other pieces comes into play.

Punting on the season would kick off draft lottery talk. Perhaps the Wizards luck their way into one of the elite prospects including Duke’s power-packed forward Zion Williamson. That’s arguably their quickest path toward rejoining the conference title contenders.

Whatever the plan, there’s a major difference between this scenario and last season’s journey: Wall won’t rejoin the team this time.

Beal embraced additional responsibilities then and now. He’s ready for the challenge with unwavering focus.

“I’m trying to shoot for the playoffs,” Beal said with a knowing grin stretched across his face. 

The reporters never fully answered his question. It didn’t matter. His expression alone made Beal’s expectations clear even without Wall, no questions asked. 

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Thomas Bryant might be turning into one of the NBA's best screen-setters

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USA Today Sports Images

Thomas Bryant might be turning into one of the NBA's best screen-setters

WASHINGTON -- Last season, the trade of Marcin Gortat and Dwight Howard's injury left a consequential void in the Wizards' offense that no one else on their roster was able to fill. 

After Gortat had for years used his wide frame to set some of the most effective screens in the NBA, Wizards guards and wings had to work harder to get their shots. Washington ranked 24th out of 30 NBA teams in screen assists and 25th in points off screens.

With Gortat and Howard out of the picture, Thomas Bryant assumed the starting job at center and became a mainstay in the rotation, but screen-setting was not his strength. He ranked 41st in the NBA in screen assists, tying Ian Mahinmi with only 2.6 per game.

Then at 21 years old, Bryant was learning on the fly what screen setting in the NBA - against the biggest, quickest and strongest basketball players in the world - was truly like. And when his first season in Washington was over, he recognized that part of his game needed some work.

So, he put emphasis on getting stronger and studying the tricks of the trade. So far this year, it has been a much different story. He is currently third in the NBA in screen assists per game, averaging over twice as many as he did last year. His 5.8 screen-assist average is right about where Rudy Gobert was (5.9) when he led the league last season.

On Sunday against the Magic, Bryant recorded 12 screen assists that led to 28 points for the Wizards offense.

"It feels pretty good to have that because we need it," Bryant told NBC Sports Washington when informed of those numbers.

"I think that's very good going forward with this team because I know we have so many guys capable of getting shots and getting to the rim. Me freeing them up is going to open things up for me if it doesn't open things up for the person I'm setting the screen for or for the weak-side getting open shots."

Bryant gives the Wizards something Gortat never did when it comes to setting screens in that he can not only roll to the basket, he also can pop out to shoot threes. And when he does roll to the rim, Bryant has the size, quickness and touch to cash in for points at a high level. He was fourth in the NBA in field goal percentage last season (61.6) and set a franchise record.

This year, Bryant is shooting 69.5 percent on shots within five feet of the rim. He is 13-for-16 on layups or dunks cutting to the basket.

Setting screens can help Bryant get points, but ultimately it's about assisting his teammates first and doing the dirty work necessary to help an offense work efficiently. The Wizards are third in offensive rating (112.4) and Bryant's contributions have been a big reason for that.

"Screen-setting has been a huge part of our offense. We set them all over the floor," head coach Scott Brooks said. 

"We don't want to stay in one place or one angle, we want to help them find better reads. There's a way to get guys open, there's a trick. Depending on who has the ball or who has the guy coming off the screen, you can manipulate the defense to get us the shot we want."

Setting picks is not the stuff that makes highlight reels or wins players MVP trophies. It isn't glamorous work, both because it often goes unnoticed and because it isn't pleasant to do. Bryant has to commit to building a wall that very large opponents will unknowingly run into.

That means elbows, shoulders and chests colliding in all sorts of combinations. 

"When you're setting a screen, you have to go in knowing that you're going to get hit and that it's going to hurt sometimes," Bryant said.

"If you're trying to get [your teammate] open and get your play off, you've gotta expect that you will get hit. When you have that expectation of you getting hit, that makes setting the screen easier because you know that you'll have that impact and you know you'll have to set the screen hard or hold it for a second."

Bryant is picking up all the little things that go into screen setting; how to brace for impact, the timing of holding a screen and when to break away, what he can get away with from referees and how to roll out of them to create his own offense. He says the only way to learn all of those elements is through experience in NBA games.

If his current pace continues, Bryant could establish himself as one of the league's best screen-setters, much like Gortat was for years before him. There is a long legacy of setting picks in Washington going back to Wes Unseld, who was perhaps most famous for the craft.

Unseld was the size of a refrigerator and, as the story goes, once knocked an opponent out cold with a screen. Bryant has heard of Unseld and his screen-setting prowess but doesn't want to take it that far.

"I try not to do that. I set good screens, but I don't ever want to hurt anybody," he said.

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Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

Wizards' fundamentals will be put to the test against Dejounte Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge

The Wizards are hosting the Spurs on Wednesday night, and these days that sentence isn't nearly as scary as it used to be. 

Tim Duncan is an assistant coach rather than a player, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are retired and Kawhi Leonard is a full two teams removed from his time playing for Gregg Popovich. 

San Antonio is reeling at the moment, dropping six straight games. If they lose in DC, it would be the longest losing streak the franchise has had since 1996-97, the season before they drafted Duncan. But that doesn't mean they won't represent a significant challenge. The Spurs are well-coached, fundamentally sound and are probably due for a win to get back on track.

The Wizards play the Spurs on Wednesday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington.

They rank fifth in offensive efficiency and 26th in defense, which is surprising given their tendency to take too many mid-range jumpers and stifling batch of guards. On both ends of the floor, the Spurs are going to test the Wizards' fundamentals. That might yield fine results on offense for Washington, but the defensive end could be an ugly scene. 

Here are two stars to watch on the San Antonio side that the Wizards will have to be wary of if they're going to secure their fourth win of the year. 

Dejounte Murray

Murray's numbers won't bounce off your screen, but he's a bonafide stud Bradley Beal might have to deal with throughout the night. He made the NBA's All-Defensive First-Team two seasons ago as a 21-year-old but missed last season due to a knee injury. 

His defensive acumen and athleticism are still with him, and he might just be the best perimeter defender in the NBA not named Marcus Smart or Kawhi Leonard. If Beal is going to keep up the same level of production we've seen over the last week, he'll have to get there while dealing with an immense amount of ball pressure.

Offensively, Murray isn't much of a threat from the outside but he makes up for it with his explosiveness toward the rim. The Wizards defense has struggled with breakdowns created off of dribble penetration, so there's a good chance Popovich looks to create open looks off of Murray's drives. 

LaMarcus Aldridge

Moe Wagner won't be able to take as many charges against this big man. Aldridge, who's averaging 18.3 points on 52 percent shooting, does most of his damage in the mid-post area. Aldridge has more shot attempts from between the free-throw line area and the three-point line (62) than he does at the rim (41).

He has a multitude of moves and counters, but he doesn't get to the line much for a player who primarily plays inside the arc. For the Wizards to contain him, they'll have to play smart but remain physical with him on his catches. Don't let him get to his spot without working for it. 

Thomas Bryant and Wagner are more equipped to defend your traditional bully-ball big men like Joel Embiid or Andre Drummond. Guarding a player like Aldridge requires poise and self-control, which are not words typically used to describe the Wizards' interior defense. 

Between Murray's dribble penetration and elite perimeter defense and Aldridge's refined face-up game, the Spurs represent a major problem for the Wizards at this stage of the season. Washington's offense is for real, as they rank third in the NBA in efficiency, but the defense is the main reason they're 3-8. 

This game could go one of two ways. The Wizards can communicate more effectively on defense, defend with more connectivity and let their offense take care of the rest in a solid win, or they could continue to struggle and a fundamentally-sound team like the Spurs will blow the doors off of them in front of their home crowd. 

Tune in to NBC Sports Washington on Wednesday at 6 p.m. EST for all your Wizards coverage before tip-off at 7 p.m.

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