With so many of his top players watching from the sideline, Coach Randy Wittman knows only what to make of what remains of the Washington Wizards. He can’t truly assess his team, or raise his expectations for the squad, until all of the pieces come together.
But through the first two games of the preseason, Wittman can already see that Bradley Beal might be capable of more than he is currently being asked, Martell Webster has teamed with Beal to form a second unit that can go on scoring binges, and the continued struggles of his starting five have forced him to consider other options.
“We’re going to mix and match here moving forward and look at different guys,” Wittman said after the Wizards lost, 108-101, to the New York Knicks on Thursday at the Verizon Center. “We’ve got to get better at starting the game.”
Wittman went with the same starting group that he used in the team’s opening loss in Charlotte — Jan Vesely, Kevin Seraphin, Trevor Ariza, A.J. Price and Jordan Crawford. It dug a 17-point hole in the first quarter and needed the second unit to spare the Wizards from getting embarrassed in their lone home game of the preseason. Beal and Webster both entered the game late in the first quarter and led the Wizards on an impressive 22-0 run to start the second, allowing them to enter the locker room with a halftime lead.
“But it wasn’t enough,” Webster said after scoring 12 points and grabbing a game-high 10 rebounds. “It was tough for us in that first quarter. It was tough. Second unit came in and kind of picked up the slack. If we can establish ourselves like that, in the first five minutes, then we can set the tone for ourselves.”
The Wizards are trying to bring along Beal slowly with the hope of not overwhelming the rookie with too much responsibility and pressure. He sat patiently for the first 11 minutes of Thursday’s game as his teammates tripped over themselves. But once Wittman inserted Beal, the No. 3 overall pick flipped the game upside down. He stole a pass, leading to a Chris Singleton layup and suddenly a team that had struggled to score 21 points in the first quarter was reeling off 22 in a row in less than eight minutes.
Beal matched Knicks all-star Carmelo Anthony with 12 points in the first half, and finished with 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in his unofficial introduction to his home fans.
“It was great — even though there was a lot of people cheering for the Knicks,” Beal said with a grin. “Just playing in the arena, the atmosphere, playing with my teammates. That’s all I need, honestly.”
After matching fellow reserve Webster with a team-high 18 points in the preseason opener against Charlotte, Beal again helped solve the Wizards’ scoring problems. He scored seven points in his first five minutes on the floor, burying an open 20-footer, hitting two free throws, then dropping a three-pointer that brought the Wizards within 38-34. At times, the 19-year-old Beal found himself guarded by Knicks point guard Jason Kidd, who is entering his 19th season in the NBA.
“It was weird,” Beal said. “Actually knowing he’s like a future Hall of Famer and he’s probably one of the best point guards to ever play. I’m playing against him so I really can’t be all friendly with him, so I just have to try to attack him and get the best of him.”
The Wizards (0-2) started the day knowing that they wouldn’t have John Wall (left knee), Nene (left foot) and Trevor Booker (left hamstring). Then Emeka Okafor had his Wizards debut delayed once again and was not even in the arena because of a stomach virus. Wittman sat Okafor out of the first game in Charlotte to get some rest.
Wittman has had to be creative in tinkering with his lineups and the challenge will continue as newcomers such as Ariza continue to have difficult adjustments. Ariza scored seven points in each of his first two games, but has shot just three of 15 (20 percent) and committed seven turnovers.
“He’s, I think, trying to fit in,” Wittman said of the veteran small forward. “What he’s doing is determining plays in his mind no matter what the defense is doing, and he can’t do that. He’s got to do a better job.”
Jordan Crawford scored a team-high 17 points and Seraphin added 10, getting most of his points in the fourth quarter after being forced to sit with foul trouble in the third. After sitting out against Charlotte with an abdominal strain, Jannero Pargo had nine points and five assists, but he also led the team with six turnovers. Pargo’s emergence pushed Shelvin Mack deeper into the rotation, but he still contributed three assists to no turnovers in just four minutes.
“I think we’re trying to get a feel for each other, get a group out there that can play well together,” Pargo said. “It’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen in two games. With practice and attention to detail I think we’ll get to that point.”
Wittman would just like to see a few more players get healthy, with the Wizards playing their next six games on the road, beginning on Saturday in Cleveland.
“I hope we get some guys back,” he said.