The Washington Wizards could have stumbled through the early stages of the 2021-2022 season as collective heads hung and eyes glazed. That’s what the national media and the rest of the league expected from them.
During the offseason, Washington Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard traded away nine-time All-Star and former MVP Russell Westbrook to the Lakers for the underwhelming big man tandem, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell, and the solid but unspectacular Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. In NBA circles, this type of deal is almost always a NO-NO because typically, when you subtract a superstar and add a group of role players, the losses pile up fast.
Rui Hachimura, the Wizards, promising young starting power forward from last season, has failed to suit up this year, not because of injury, but because…... oddly enough, we don’t know why he hasn’t logged a single minute of game action this fall. We know he had no contact with the team throughout training camp and preseason, and he isn’t on the bench during Washington games.
Thomas Bryant, Washington’s talented starting center, was off to a torrid start last season, averaging 14.3 points per game while shooting 42.9% from deep before he tore his ACL. He’s still not back, leaving a sizable hole in the middle.
The Washington Wizards finished the 2020-2021 season with a losing record of 34-38 and, on paper, should be worse this season. Yet, despite it all (or perhaps because of it all), Bradley Beal and company are 7-3 through ten games, resting comfortably in a three-way tie with the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Next, we’ll dive into three areas that are driving the Washington Wizards’ early success.
The Wizards Starting Backcourt Duo
Bradley Beal’s numbers are down significantly from last season when he finished second in scoring at 31.3 points per game behind Stephen Curry. Throughout the Wizards’ first ten games, Bradley Beal has averaged 24.2 PPG, 5.4 APG, and 5.3 RPG while shooting a poor 42.6% from the field and an even worse 25.4% from deep.
Yes, Beal’s traditional statistics can’t compare to last season’s. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s playing worse overall. In fact, this season, he’s having a more significant impact on winning than ever.
Over the past three years, the Washington Wizards often performed worse with Beal on the court VS. off:
- 2020-2021: -0.1 +/- (5th on the Wizards)
- 2019-2020: -3.5 +/- (20th on the Wizards)
- 2018-2019: -1.4 +/- (17th on the Wizards)
Flash to the beginning of the 2021-2022 season, and the Washington Wizards are 2.8 points better with Bradley Beal on the floor; despite his shoddy shooting numbers.
This year Bradley Beal came into camp focused on his conditioning and on increasing his defensive effort. He wanted to morph from an offensive specialist into a two-way terror. So far, so good.
Bradley Beal has zoomed around the court this fall, traveling a total of 2.64 miles per game, good for 17th in the league. Despite the distance he’s logging, Bradley Beal’s held his assignments to 3.4% worse than their average, second on the Wizards.
For the first time in Beal’s career, he’s fighting over screens, keeping his hands up, and jetting out to open three-point shooters. His efforts have paid dividends. The Washington Wizards rank 5th in the league in defensive rating for the first time in what feels like forever, and Beal’s been a guiding force behind their success.
Bradley Beal’s three-point percentage will not hover around 25% from deep the entire season. He’s hit 37.5% of his long bomb attempts throughout his career, and as he gets used to the new Wilson basketball and as his legs adjust to the energy he’s expending on defense, his hit rate will level out. Once Beal shoots like he’s capable of, the Wizards will only get more dangerous.
Spencer Dinwiddie partially tore his ACL during his third game last year after averaging 20.6 PPG and 5.7 APG throughout the 2019-2020 season. Nobody knew what to expect from the former Colorado star after he signed a three-year, $54 million contract to start at point guard with the Washington Wizards over the offseason.
Thus far, the returns have been excellent. Through nine games, Dinwiddie’s averaging 15.9 PPG, 5.7 APG, and he’s hitting 38.3% of his 5.2 three-point attempts per game. More important than stats, he’s shown an instant connection with his backcourt running mate Bradley Beal, forming a yin and yang relationship.
Early on, Bradley Beal has shined in isolation play types for the Wizards, averaging 1.14 points per possession (14th in the NBA), giving his teammates a get-out-of-jail-free card at the end of ugly half-court possessions. At the same time, Spencer Dinwiddie’s been in the upper echelon of the NBA as the ball handler in pick and roll situations, netting 1.02 PPP, good for 27th in the league.
Dinwiddie mixes a herky-jerky style driving to the rim and a smooth mid-range jumper, making him one of the most brutal covers in the association out of the pick and roll. When “The Mayor” gets to the rim, he converts 66.7% of his shots and he’s connecting on 45.5% of his attempts between 10 and 16 feet.
On the less glamorous end, Dinwiddie has shown no ill effects from his injury last season. He’s shifting side-to-side with speed and agility, and he’s closing out on shooters as hard as ever. He’s held opposing point guards to 1.2% lower than their normal average, and his defensive rating clocks in at a very solid 101.1, fifth on the Wizards (minimum 15 MPG).
The Ex-Lakers “Little-3” Is Playing Like A Big-3
2021 was a nightmare year for former Sixth Man of the Year, Montrezl Harrell. He averaged 13.5 PPG and 6.2 RPG for the Lakers and found himself nearly out of the rotation by the end of the season as rumors that he was sulking in the locker room surfaced.
Fast forward one year, and Harrell’s back to his old tricks for the Washington Wizards. He’s averaging 17.7 PPG and 9.1 RPG across 30.0 energy-filled minutes.
Montrezl has formed a solid pick-and-roll connection with Spencer Dinwiddie and backup point guard Raul Neto. He’s top-20 in the league as the roll man in pick and roll situations, averaging a superb 1.30 points per possession. When Harrell’s not diving to the rim, he’s playing bully ball, giving the Wizards a genuine post-up option on the block.
If you’re an NBA fan, you probably already know the story of Montrezl Harrell; he’s always been known as a solid offensive weapon and subpar defender. This year that’s no longer true. In the early goings, he’s played excellent defense. Harrell doesn’t have the size to be an elite shot-blocker, but he’s shown excellent court awareness by positioning himself well (tied for 5th in the NBA in total charges drawn) for the Wizards.
Overall, he leads the Wizards in plus/minus at +6 for the season, proving he’s becoming a true two-way center.
When Kyle Kuzma came into the league, he was a pure stat stuffer. He scored, and that was about it. “Kuz” didn’t do the little things it takes to win. Slowly, under Lakers head coach Frank Vogel’s tutelage, he stopped focusing solely on putting the ball in the bucket and became a solid all-around player.
Kyle Kuzma’s averaging close to a double-double this year for the Washington Wizards at 14.1 PPG and 9.5 RPG. But going beyond stats, he’s doing all the things a playoff team needs on the court that don’t always show up in the box score.
1. He’s swinging the ball around the floor, picking up hockey assists
2. He’s playing solid defense, without fouling (2.1 personal fouls per game)
3. He’s on a new team, surrounded by a new cast of characters, but he’s turning the ball over less than two times per game
4. He’s hustling on defense, ranking third on the Wizards in total shots contested at 70
When KCP first arrived in LA from Detroit, Lakers fans loathed him. He played lazy D and bricked nearly all of his clutch three-point attempts. Then Anthony Davis was traded to the Purple and Gold, and suddenly Caldwell-Pope found his niche as a prototypical 3-and-D wing.
During the bubble in 2020, KCP was a key contributor, hitting timely three-pointers and playing solid perimeter defense for the Lakers as they won the title. Lakers supporters grew to love Kentavious and were sad to see Rob Pelinka deal him to the Wizards.
In Washington, KCP has played as a low-maintenance 3-and-D wing. Wizards head coach Wes Unseld has consistently tasked Caldwell-Pope with guarding the opposing squad’s best perimeter offensive weapon, and the former Laker hasn’t disappointed, holding his assignments to 3.1% below their average.
On offense, KCP doesn’t need to do much. He rarely dribbles the ball, and more than half his shot attempts come from beyond the arc, where he’s hitting at a 40.4 mark.
Caldwell-Pope proved to be a perfect complement to LeBron and Davis in LA, and over in the Northeast, he’s showing the same skills next to Dinwiddie and Beal. KCP’s mistake-free offense and exceptional perimeter defense make him one of the best role players in the association.
The Little Known Tandem Of Raul Neto And Daniel Gafford
If you don’t live in Washington, you’ve probably never heard of Raul Neto and Daniel Gafford, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve credit for the Wizards’ early-season success.
Spencer Dinwiddie’s ranked top-30 in the NBA as the ball handler in pick and roll situations, but Raul Neto sits at number one. Neto’s averaging 1.25 points per possession as he’s formed into a devastating duo with teammates Montrezl Harrell and Daniel Gafford out of the pick and roll.
How does the little know Raul Neto from Brazil become an elite pick and roll ball handler? It’s simple. He’s hitting 71.4% of his shots from 0 to 3 feet, 52.4% of his attempts between 3-10 feet, and 66.7% from 10 to 16 feet. All of which means Neto’s impossible to stop driving to the rim and popping out in the midrange out of pick and rolls. When the opposition swallows up his shot attempts, he’s a pure passer with a nearly 3/1 assist to turnover ratio.
Raul Neto’s soaking up 22.2 minutes per game at the point guard position for the Wizards, and when he’s in on the floor, he’s been giving teams fits on offense, but he’s been a solid performer on defense as well, ranking third on the Wizards in defensive rating at 100.9.
Raul Neto’s been a boon off the bench for the Wizards, capable of guiding the ship when Dinwiddie rests.
Daniel Gafford stepped into the starting center position for the injured Thomas Bryant and performed much better than expected. Gafford isn’t the three-point threat from the middle that Bryant is; he’s taken no outside shots this season. Still, he knows who he is as a player, and he doesn’t roam outside his abilities.
Daniel Gafford’s giving Washington 8.9 PPG while shooting 71.4% from the field, and like his teammate Montrezl Harrell, he rolls to the rim hard and finishes better than nearly every other big in the NBA, hitting a monster 91.3% of his shots from 0 to 3 feet.
He’s also averaging 1.9 blocks per game, supplying much-needed muscle inside for the smallish Wizards on the block.
Gafford’s too limited in his offensive abilities and too slow on defense to be a true lockdown specialist. But he’s been a pleasant surprise and solid contributor for the Wizards this season.
The Washington Wizards Could Surprise Everyone In The East
Russell Westbrook’s over in La La Land playing next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Rui Hachimura is still a ways off from joining his teammates on the floor. And Thomas Bryant’s recovering from his torn ACL.
Still, Washington's 7-3 record isn’t a fluke. The Wizards might not keep up their torrent 7-3 pace throughout the season, but they’ve shown they’re ready to step up and join the upper echelon of teams in the crowded Eastern Conference.
Look for Bradley Beal and Spencer Dinwiddie to extend their solid two-way play in the backcourt, as role players Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Raul Neto, and Daniel Gafford chip in across the board, collectively excelling against the odds.