Gregg Popovich isn’t shy about what this season means for the San Antonio Spurs. The longtime coach avoided the word “rebuild” when asked during pregame what makes the team special to him this year, instead opting for a genuine answer that this season is about development — helping young players identify who they can be in the NBA and setting them on the path for successful careers.
The Washington Wizards had more in common with the Spurs on Friday night in a 136-124 win than perhaps was previously imagined.
In the Wizards’ second straight game without Bradley Beal (knee) and Kyle Kuzma (ankle), their youth contingent took center stage. Second-year guard Corey Kispert notched a career-high 26 points, including six three-pointers, on 9-for-14 shooting and added five rebounds and two assists, handling business down the stretch with flair and taking over from Kristaps Porzingis (23 points, nine rebounds).
“Everything was working but the free throw line,” Kispert said, underlining the lone lowlight of his performance — he went 2 for 5 from the line.
Backup point guard Delon Wright had a season-high 24 points to go with seven rebounds and three assists.
But it was the up-and-comers who played under a brighter spotlight than usual. They may be a larger focus of the remaining eight games of the season as the Wizards (33-41) stay planted in 12th place in the Eastern Conference, two spots outside the play-in tournament.
Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said before Friday’s game that imaging revealed a mild sprain in Beal’s left knee, though he is still considered day-to-day. Kuzma was out with what Unseld called earlier this week a “significant” right ankle sprain.
Kispert and third-year forward Deni Avdija started in their stead again, helping lift the Wizards alongside young guards Jordan Goodwin and Johnny Davis.
For almost every gaffe from a youngster there was a highlight against inexperienced San Antonio: a half-court heave from Avdija to Davis for a reverse layup to put the Wizards up 91-88 in the third quarter, a scrappy offensive rebound from Goodwin with the Wizards up two a few minutes later, a career-high-tying sixth three-pointer from Kispert late in the fourth.
Unseld praised Avdija’s and Kispert’s aggressiveness in the past two games.
“The pace at which they’re playing. … Corey, he’s gotten better and better at operating off screens, of catching — no shot, of chasing — hitting the flash guy, hitting the big, playing off the big,” Unseld said. “That’s a development we didn’t see last year. So he’s gotten better and better, and he’s able to add straight-line drives and finishing at the rim. It adds another layer to his game when teams want to heat him up and get him off the three-point line.”
Although Kispert and Avdija shared the limelight, it was Wright who helped steady the Wizards to put the game out of reach after a competitive third quarter.
The backup guard gave Washington a one-point lead heading into the final frame with a buzzer-beating jumper to end the third quarter. Wright then started off with a three-pointer after the break and set the Wizards on a 10-4 run that gave them control of the game for good. They never trailed in the fourth quarter.
“Definitely a big stretch,” Wright said. “They started to make a game, but they’re young. They’re playing freely. It’s sometimes tough to play teams like that, so that’s why we had to buckle down. Start getting some shots, getting some stops.”
Keldon Johnson led San Antonio (19-55) with 30 points.
Here’s what else to know about the Wizards’ win:
Virginia football visits
The Wizards hosted more than 100 members of Virginia’s football team for a visit meant to provide a lighthearted outlet for the team in the wake of a November shooting that left three players dead and two others wounded.
Forward Anthony Gill, who graduated from Virginia in 2016, spearheaded the effort to bring the players to Capital One Arena, where they also received team gear.
Gill was on campus in Charlottesville in 2014 when student Hannah Graham was killed and knows firsthand the difficult experience of being a visible representative of Virginia at a time of tragedy.
“The university is the city. Everyone in town is a U-Va. fan, so there’s no getting away from it,” Gill said. “I remember going to the grocery store, and you’re always one person away from knowing somebody else in Charlottesville. I can only imagine how football players feel when they walk around with U-Va. football shirts on and people in the city are saying stuff to you and you’re trying to grieve, get over it, embrace your feelings and everybody’s coming up to you wanting to talk about it. Obviously everyone’s coming from a good place. But sometimes it can be overwhelming.”