How the role players on the Washington Wizards perform this season could play a key part in the way the season turns out.
Will Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija take the next steps in their careers? How will point guard Monte Morris adjust to his new teammates? Can veterans Will Barton and Delon Wright provide the steadiness needed off the bench?
All those questions matter. But don’t get it twisted. The fate of the Wizards is mostly in the hands of Bradley Beal, Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis.
How those three players mesh with each other and perform on a nightly basis will determine whether the Wizards miss the postseason for the fourth time in the last five years or if they are capable of competing in the playoffs.
For the newly assembled Beal-Kuzma-Porzingis trio, so far, so good. But it’s still early.
“There’s a little bit of a learning curve, but I like where they are,” coach Wes Unseld Jr. said. “It’ll take some time, but I think it will continue to improve.”
Through three games, the Wizards are 2-1 for the second straight year, and all three players have shown flashes of why they’ve been paired together. Beal was signed to a $251 max contract in the offseason, while Kuzma and Porzingis came to the District via trades. Kuzma, a 6-foot-9 forward, was part of the Russell Westbrook blockbuster last summer, while Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 big man, was acquired at last season’s deadline from the Mavericks.
After Friday’s home-opening win over the Chicago Bulls, Kuzma said he’s been impressed with how well the trio is gelling, especially since they’ve barely played together. When Porzingis was traded to Washington, Beal had already undergone surgery for a wrist injury and was out for the remainder of the year. Kuzma then missed time at the end of the year, so he and Porzingis only played a handful of games together.
“I think it’s damn good right now, and we haven’t really had an opportunity to really play too much together,” said Kuzma, who is averaging 19.7 points and 7 rebounds this season. “We just all know how to play basketball, that’s what it all boils down to. Brad’s going to make the right play, [Porzingis] is going to make the right play, I’m going to make the right play. And we’re all going to be aggressive at the same time.”
A key part of Unseld’s offense revolves around ball movement rather than isolation plays with specific players. To do that, everyone on the floor must play smart without the ball, and Kuzma said that’s something that he, Beal and Porzingis all have experience with. Beal used to be the No. 2 in Washington behind point guard John Wall; Porzingis for the previous three seasons was behind superstar Luka Doncic in Dallas; and Kuzma was well below LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the pecking order in Los Angeles.
“We’ve all been in situations where we’ve had to play off ball to better players, whether that’s John Wall, Luka or AD and Bron,” Kuzma said. “So we understand how to play off the ball. It’s really fun and we have a good connection right now.”
Beal wasn’t as bullish as Kuzma on the connection thus far, noting that he and Porzingis, whose combination of size and shooting ability is what earned him the nickname “The Unicorn” when he was with the Knicks, still have much to learn together. Porzingis has recorded two double-doubles in Washington’s first three games, including an 18-point, 11-rebound performance in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Cavaliers.
“Everything is up for improvement. Nothing is perfect. We’re still figuring each other out,” Beal said. “We’re constantly figuring out that dynamic with [Porzingis]. He does a great job of rolling and popping. We’re still a work in progress.”
Beal is averaging 23 points through three games — a good number for any NBA player, but well below his 30-plus point-per-game averages in the two years before Unseld’s arrival. Beal was scoring 23.2 points a contest last season before his injury.
Considered one of the best pure scorers at the shooting guard position in the NBA, Beal is working within Unseld’s system and is just trying to make the “right play.”
“I’m going to trust my teammates to make the shot, make the extra pass, make the extra read,” said Beal, who is averaging 6 assists a game. “It’s not all on me to just score, score, score. I’ve embraced the role of creating for my teammates and trusting them to make the shot.”
• Jacob Calvin Meyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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