“I played that position at a very high level, and so I know when I see a good one,” Brooks said on a video conference Thursday night “. . . Neto, he can play the two. He can play the three, especially in today’s game when you have so many smaller twos and threes. He plays with a toughness. That’s who he is.”
The guard Bradley Beal calls “Wolfman” — Neto’s first name is pronounced “Hah-ool”; think howling at the moon — is the latest role player to help usher the Wizards to another win.
Washington (12-18) completed a season sweep of the Denver Nuggets (17-15) with a 112-110 road win Thursday thanks to strong nights from a trio of starters and with Neto and backup center Robin Lopez filling in the gaps.
Beal led the team with 33 points. Russell Westbrook had 16 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists for his ninth triple-double of the season, and Rui Hachimura added 20 points. Lopez kept Nikola Jokic (24 points, 11 rebounds) in check for the second time this season.
The Wizards went 3-1 on their first western road trip of the season and have now won six of their past seven games.
Neto stood out Thursday for his crafty moves and pure hustle going up against Jamal Murray (34 points) and the rest of the Nuggets’ offense. Neto, playing more minutes than usual because fellow backup Ish Smith is out with a right quadriceps strain, finished with 15 points, five steals and four assists.
The guard has been a favorite in Washington since training camp, after which his teammates and Brooks agreed Neto was the standout player, but he has most often been categorized as a good, energetic shooter.
On Thursday, he proved his versatility.
“He was big tonight — defensive plays, made big shots; he was the X-factor tonight,” Westbrook said. “Did a good job of keeping control of the game when he was in there. Did a hell of a job tonight.”
The first sign that it might have been Neto’s night came in the first quarter when he tipped a lazy pass from Denver a little too emphatically into the open half court, sprinted down to save it, then reestablished himself inbounds before getting the ball to Troy Brown Jr. for a layup.
When Washington’s role players have been at their best this season, they have typically made plays such as these — moves that not only get the team points but that also energize the team at exactly the right moment. Brown’s bucket put the Wizards up 26-22 at the end of a rare strong first quarter that made all the difference in cementing Washington’s control early on.
In a pivotal sequence in the final minute, Neto picked Murray up at half court and scrambled to stay with him until he missed a three-point shot.
“He’s just a gritty guy,” Beal said. “We love everything he brings to the table, and he accepted the challenge tonight guarding Murray. Murray made some tough ones, but [Neto] made him work for every single thing.”
The point guard is averaging career highs in minutes (19.6) and points (8.2) with the Wizards, shooting 45.9 percent overall, including 37.3 percent from three-point range. He knows the team is depending on him to be aggressive and take shots when he’s open on offense, but his expanded role on the team feels freeing rather than pressurized.
“It’s easier when you have coaches and teammates that allow you to be yourself,” Neto said. “I’m not saying I wasn’t able to be myself in other teams, but Coach, Scott, gave me a lot of confidence, and my teammates gave me a lot of confidence to just do what I do. Take shots when I feel like I have to take shots, be a leader on the team defensively, talk to everybody.
“I think I’m in a good spot. I found a team that allows me to do that, and I feel comfortable doing that, and I think it’s showing on the court. You know, I worked hard every summer waiting for my opportunity, and I think it came this year, and I was ready.”
That is the mentality that Brooks often says he respects most, having been in Neto's position himself.
Asked again Thursday to explain the team’s hot streak after such a trying start to the season, the coach reiterated the team’s most common explanation of late. Everyone with the Wizards is fulfilling his specific role.
“We’re playing hard, our starters are leading us and playing well, and bit by bit, some of our inexperienced players are getting better,” Brooks said. “And seems like [Lopez] and Neto, the two veterans, savvy veterans, are playing huge minutes when called upon and playing well.”