John Wall and Bradley Beal are in the spotlight for the Washington Wizards

The Post Sports Live crew look at whether the Wizards can make a playoff run without Nene in the lineup for the next six weeks. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Jason Reid
Columnist February 26

John Wall and Bradley Beal expect the Washington Wizards to keep rolling while Nene is sidelined. Wall and Beal are just the guys to help make it happen.

Fans are missing the big picture if they fret about the Wizards potentially losing ground in the Eastern Conference playoff race without the brittle-but-talented Brazilian, who could be sidelined six weeks because of a knee injury. The Wizards’ rising back-court duo have been groomed for big things, and their moment has arrived. It began well Tuesday.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Wall and Beal showed they’re ready to shoulder even more as the Wizards defeated the Orlando Magic in their first game since Nene was injured, extended their season-high winning streak to four games and produced a winning record (29-28) for the second time this season. Wall and Beal were solid, scoring 27 and 21 points, respectively.

For the Wizards, though, the players’ determination was almost as important as their production. Wall and Beal won’t permit the Wizards, who play the Toronto Raptors on the road Thursday, to use Nene’s latest ailment as an excuse.

“We’ll be tested,” Beal said. “We have to be prepared for moments like this.”

It seems Wall and Beal have everything they need. They realize they must continue to perform consistently. Whenever their teammates turn to them, they should inspire confidence. It’s imperative now because the most respected player in the Wizards’ locker room probably won’t be on the court any time soon.

In the past, the Wizards would have collapsed after losing a player as sharp and skilled as Nene, an outstanding passer who’s always thinking one move ahead. The roster wasn’t good enough to withstand major blows. But Wall and Beal can counterpunch.

Listening to Wall, you realize he’s excited about the challenge of trying to guide the Wizards to the postseason for the first time in six seasons. Wall silenced doubters by becoming a first-time all-star this winter and demonstrating, after a rough start, a newfound awareness of what it takes to play winning basketball.

His standing in the organization, Wall believes, requires him to “step up and take on a bigger role. That’s the situation I’m willing to accept.”

Wall’s growth as a leader is among the most encouraging developments the franchise has experienced in decades. Wizards management pushed Wall out front as a rookie because it had nothing else to offer to frustrated, long-suffering fans. Surrounded by blockheads who were more interested in hitting the club than the weight room, Wall had no one to teach him the right way to play.

Still dribbling in circles back in November, Wall made big changes after Nene ripped his ineffective style. Since then, the former No. 1 overall draft pick has performed better than many NBA observers thought he could.

Wall finally understands “you don’t have to do it all by just scoring. You do it by . . . playing better defense, getting your teammates involved and just having that energy.”

Beal brings a lot to the court, too. He benefited from entering a much more professional locker room than the one in which Wall was initially imprisoned, and he has developed faster than Wall. He possesses the deep shooting touch to become one of the game’s great wing scorers. “I have to step up my game a little more” now, Beal said.

Thing is, he can. Wall as well. Neither was running at full capacity. They didn’t have to with Nene, center Marcin Gortat and rejuvenated wing forward Trevor Ariza all working together well.

At full strength, the Wizards’ starting five are fun to watch (I never thought I’d write that line). Often, they play unselfishly and make the right moves. With Nene out, however, the Wizards have lost the only starter capable of helping Wall direct the offense.

Wall will have to create more, and Beal must shoot a lot. Those two elements form the foundation of the Wizards’ best hope for success as they await Nene’s return.

Of course, Coach Randy Wittman will continue to promote a team approach. “Nobody needs to do anything differently than they did up to this point,” Wittman said, doing his best to reduce the pressure on Wall and Beal.

“That’s really the main focus. We don’t need anybody to [have a] supernatural effort for us to continue to play the way we’re playing.”

That all sounds good, but don’t buy what Wittman is selling. Wall and Beal certainly haven’t — and the Wizards should be better off for it.

For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.

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