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(Aaron Dana)
(Aaron Dana)

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The Wizard of Washington

After years of disappointment in D.C., John Wall, Bradley Beal, and a cast of clicking role players have the Wizards on track to contend for a conference title. But the real magician is the new coach, who’s proved capable of enchanting game plans and personalities alike.

Washington Wizards starting center Marcin Gortat sits on a folding chair behind a folding table near a stairwell inside Verizon Center, his big, lanky body folded, too, and speaks with deep conviction. "This is the worst job in the world, to be a coach," Gortat says. It’s the last week in February, and he has just come from a team meeting with a sleep consultant, followed by a practice, and when he says he "truly admires" the job Scott Brooks has done in his first season with the Wizards, it’s partially in the manner of someone in a lobster bib giving thanks for the haggard dudes who have to sail out into the mist to catch the stuff, partially in the manner of someone who has just dropped their kid off at day care. "I’m just super amazed with how patient he is," Gortat says. "I would have exploded a million times, just in general, just from the regular BS the players bring to the table every day, at every practice, at every game."

Brooks, a former NBA journeyman (and NBA champion!), has not only forged a respected coaching career in his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder and now the Wizards — he has built a reputation for managing all of that ambient BS particularly well. It’s part of why he’s in Washington, and it’s part of why the Wizards stand in third place in the Eastern Conference with a 38–24 record, an average points total in the triple digits, and a shot at winning 50 games for the first time since 1978–79. And that’s after a 2–8 start that threatened to derail the season. "He was the right fit for our team," Gortat says, "for the stars and the players that we have."

Those players include All-Star point guard John Wall, 26, a slashing menace with android vision and a yen for blocking shots, who is second in the NBA in average assists — only James Harden’s 11.3 dishes per game tops Wall’s 10.8 — and recently surpassed Gilbert Arenas to move to eighth on the Wizards’ all-time leading scorers list. They include probably-shoulda-been-an-All-Star Bradley Beal, 23, a sharpshooter with buttery fast-break drives who signed a max contract this summer and is ninth in the league in total 3-pointers made (164). They include Otto Porter Jr., 23, the glue guy who has quietly shot a freakish 45.3 percent from behind the 3-point line this season, fourth in the league; and Markieff Morris, for whom the Wizards traded a 2016 first-rounder and other assets and who, after hitting two free throws to seal a win over the Golden State Warriors on February 28, said, "My wife tells me all the time I’ve got big nuts." They include guys angling to cement their roles ahead of the playoffs, like Bojan Bogdanovic, 27, who was acquired before the trade deadline from the Brooklyn Nets as part of the Wizards’ push to secure home court, and who hit eight 3-pointers in a recent win over the Orlando Magic.

Now, as Washington enters the final 20-game stretch of the regular season, a grueling part of the schedule filled with several long road trips, Brooks and these Wizards hope they can lift the capital region out of a long sports-happiness slump with a deep playoff run. To do so, they’ll have to be willing students of the game, mastering both chemistry and physics (finding potent combinations, maintaining momentum), taking lessons from history, and showing up for every test.

Wall watches so much basketball that he says he may have a problem. This offseason, before Wall had even played a game for Brooks, he was already getting ribbed by his new head coach: "I’m looking at him like, ‘You need to get a life,’" Brooks told Yahoo’s Chris Mannix last summer, remembering the way Wall could rattle off the AAU stats for guys Brooks had never heard of. "‘Don’t you do anything other than watch basketball throughout the day?’"

Not really, Wall says now, sitting inside a lounge at Verizon Center last week. "I watch girls’ basketball," Wall says. "I watch men’s basketball. Whenever I get the opportunity, that’s all I watch, really. It’s either action movies or basketball. I just went back and watched the game of the girl from Washington that broke the record." He’s referring to Huskies guard Kelsey Plum, who recently became the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer in women’s hoops in dramatic fashion. "Like, how do you need 54 points and score 57 on Senior Night?" he says, impassioned. "Nothing more amazing than that in front of your fans and families. She’s a heck of a player."

The night prior, the Wizards lost 102–92 to the Utah Jazz, a game cemented by a cold-blooded Gordon Hayward 3-pointer that caused Brooks to pound his fist on the scorer’s table. After that game Wall stressed the importance of defense in his media scrum.

This morning, the words "TEAM SLEEP" are scrawled on a whiteboard in the locker room, a reminder of the upcoming session with the consultant. (Ted Leonsis, the team’s majority owner, says that focusing institutionally on the importance of things like sleep and hydration are one way to jockey for an edge in professional sports.) Wall jokes that he doesn’t need help napping, then talks about the time in the opening weeks of the season when he and his teammates got a much-needed wake-up call.

John Wall (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
John Wall (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

During a team video session following the Wizards’ first home loss, Brooks — who came to Washington after what he calls the one-season "forced sabbatical" that followed his Thunder ouster after the 2014–15 season — singled out Wall’s defense as the worst on the team. In that moment, watching basketball wasn’t quite as fun for Wall. "I just sat there," Wall says, "and was like, ‘Well, the video don’t lie.’ It’s pretty obvious right there, showing me what I ain’t been doing. But that challenged me. It worked out."

It may have worked eventually, but in the short term it was rough going for Washington, particularly after an offseason in which Wall had gone through double knee surgery; Brooks had been hired; Beal had signed for five years and $127.2 million; and Wall had said about Beal in a now-infamous interview with CSN Mid-Atlantic that "now that you have your money, you got to go out there and improve your game" and that the two "have a tendency to dislike each other on court." The characterization soon took on a life of its own despite both players’ efforts to downplay it; Beal’s cold shooting to open the season did not help. It seemed like the beginning of yet another lost season for a long-beleaguered franchise beset by bad drafts, weird trades, and botched clock management. And it felt like one more dismal season in the world of D.C. sports, where between the perennially disappointing Capitals and Nationals, the problematic Redskins, and the we-don’t-speak-of-Georgetown, there’s long been enough malaise to fill a Jimmy Carter speech.

Sitting in his office at the wood-paneled Washington, D.C., headquarters of the holding company Revolution LLC, where he’s a partner, Leonsis says that when the Wizards were 2–8 he met with Brooks and team president Ernie Grunfeld, in much the same way that Brooks might call a 20-second timeout just to stop the bleeding. "I said, ‘How ya feelin’?" Leonsis recalls serenely, a framed jacket with an America Online logo, celebrating his former AOL executive days, behind him. "‘How’s it goin’?’ And [Brooks] was very honest. … He said, ‘Well, I certainly have to do a better job of coaching, but I’m also learning rotations, and the players are also learning how to play our system.’ There was such a calmness, a nondefensiveness, a — if you can posit this — like, a confidence with humility, or a humility with confidence."

Ted Leonsis (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Ted Leonsis (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In hiring Brooks, who was fired after missing the playoffs with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 three seasons after he led them to an NBA Finals appearance against the Miami Heat, Leonsis, who also owns the Capitals, hoped to get not only the most qualified candidate available, but the best fit: someone who could work with emerging and occasionally volatile talent, as Brooks had with the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. (In addition to the NBA Finals appearance, Oklahoma City twice made it to the Western Conference finals under Brooks’s watch.) Brooks not only had to manage those dueling strong personalities from within that team, he also had to navigate the constant scrutiny, tea-leaf reading, body-language assessments, and armchair psychology that rolled in from the outside with every shouted "come on, now!" and every late-game decision.

"Everybody is different," says Grunfeld, leaning over a railing and overlooking a Wizards practice, hesitant to compare the Westbrook-Durant dynamic too directly to anything in D.C. "But one of the things [Brooks] showed [in OKC] was that he was really good with developing young players, and you can see that here: John and Brad have gotten better, Otto has gotten better, Kelly [Oubre Jr.] has gotten better. So there’s a lot of positives that he’s brought to the table not only from a win-loss standpoint but from a development standpoint from long range."

Which could be part of the reason, even at 2–8 after a loss to the lowly Philadelphia 76ers, "nobody came in and pointed the finger at nobody," Wall says. "In the past it’d be pointing fingers, people wouldn’t come in and put in the hard work. I think the most important thing everybody did was look they-selves in the mirror and see what they could do better to help this team individually. And once we did that, it was easy."

With the great Golden State Warriors in town on the last day of February, it was a time for plenty of reflection and projection vis-à-vis a Wizards team striving to reach that sort of NBA echelon. Washington had been, heading into the All-Star break, among the best in the league: At one point, the Wizards went on a 17-game run in which their only two losses were a buzzer-beater in Detroit and an overtime loss to Cleveland that required an otherworldly game-tying 3 from LeBron James. Beal’s touch returned; Porter added his own lights-out shooting on the Verizon Center court, where he had once played while at Georgetown; Gortat set about averaging a double-double. "I’ve had a streak where we played that bad before," Wall says of the start of the season, "but never a streak where we just were that dominant. … I think the thing is, we believed we were a better team than our record showed. In the past, I don’t think we knew that." But since the break, they’d turned in a trap-game loss to the Sixers and been beaten by Hayward and the Jazz. Ahead of last week’s game against Golden State, a TV reporter pointed out to Wall after the morning shootaround that there would probably be plenty of Warriors fans at Verizon Center. Wall took the suggestion in stride.

In December 2015, Wall referred in an interview to "bandwagon" Wizards fans; it was harsh, and disgruntled fans who have stuck it out through some lean times weren’t thrilled by the description, but from Wall’s perspective the comments made sense. He is a proud player who doesn’t hide from his observations; he notices not only teammates cutting on the court, but the enthusiasm and number of the fans watching them do so. He doesn’t just read defenses, he reads the articles people send him on Twitter, good and bad. "Everyone does," he says, "everyone does." The Wizards organization in general tends to be particularly self-aware and even self-deprecating, from the PR guys who cheekily respond to an interview request with Wall with Ringer links calling for him to be traded (well played); to Gortat engaging on Twitter; to Leonsis telling a long story about wearing Gucci, Tom Ford, and Paul Stuart to combat online accusations of dressing "like a substitute math teacher" in his standard Italian sweaters.

Against Golden State, the Warriors fans in the crowd weren’t the only thing feeding into Wall and his teammates’ sense of pride; there was also the matter of comparing the Wizards backcourt to their bizarro world counterparts. (Wall has gotten pushback in the past for suggesting that he’s as good as Stephen Curry.) And then there was the presence of Durant, a D.C. native long linked to the Wizards; the team cleared cap space and hired Durant’s former coach, Brooks, this offseason, but the free agent wound up almost as far away from home as possible. Later, he explained that he didn’t want to return to his hometown at this point in his career, but that didn’t stop several loud fans from sounding particularly affronted.

In this heightened environment, against the team that won the championship two seasons ago, won 73 regular-season games in 2016, and landed Durant, every Warriors miss felt like a Wizards made 3; every Wizards basket felt like the good guys standing up to their oppressors. (That is, unless you were one of the many kids in the Curry jerseys.) Durant hyperextended his knee in the first quarter, the sort of moment, like Andrew Bogut’s recent bone-breaking debut in Cleveland, that served as a reminder that anything can happen in this league, regardless of how preordained the outcome so often seems. At one point in the second quarter, the crowd cheered a stifling Wizards defense that led to a Golden State airball as if Washington were a hockey team on a penalty kill. The Wizards got off to a 19-point first-quarter lead, but by the start of the fourth quarter the Warriors had predictably battled back and tied the game, 85–85.

For a young team with a new coach, the rest of the game — with its traded-back-and-forth baskets and its hold-your-breath rebounds and its rainbow 3-pointers — was as close as it gets to playoff experience. The Wizards defense was as stifling as its offense was collected. Rather than melt down when, with just more than a minute to play, the Warriors tied the game on a Draymond Green 3, Washington answered with a Wall alley-oop to Morris. And when Curry missed a go-ahead 3 with seven seconds to play, the big win felt like an important step for an ascendant Wizards team.

The Warriors may be a team for the Wizards to hold themselves up against, but they’re also a reminder that even the best NBA teams deal with issues related to chemistry and calibration.

"A lot of my old coaches always told me when I was a player," says Brooks, "and I always thought they were, like, messing with me: ‘Man, I should have gotten a psychology degree in college.’ I always thought, ‘Come on, whatever.’ But now, [I see that] there’s truth to that. You have to be able to manage different personalities. Nobody is motivated the same way. There’s some guys that are hard to crack. And then some guys that you think are impossible to coach are sometimes the easiest to coach, because they’re so competitive."

As the team’s two star players, Wall and Beal are inevitably compared, but they’re more complementary to one another than they are neck-and-neck. Wall says he grew up idolizing Allen Iverson — "I was small, I had braids, I wore all the Iversons, I just did everything he did" — right down to the demonstrative emotions. (In 2011, Wall asked the Wizards coaching staff to fine him 50 bucks any time he showed visible frustration.) Beal, meanwhile, was a big fan of J.J. Redick. Wall has the shot-blocking and floor-controlling abilities; Beal spreads the floor and hits clutch shots. At a recent practice, Wall ran his mouth and giggled with some assistant coaches and teammates on one end of the court; Beal uneventfully practiced shooting 3s from the other. "Fire and ice," Gortat says, adding that there are distinctions between being teammates and being friends.

Marcin Gortat (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Marcin Gortat (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

"If you are great friends," Gortat says, "the way I am great friends with [Tomas] Satoransky on the team, you can see him sitting next to me on the plane, on the bus. You can see him on pictures on Instagram with me. You can see him with me in the club, in the restaurant, at the bar. We hang out everywhere together because we are great friends — we’re like brothers. But that doesn’t mean they have to be like brothers. They play on the court like brothers. Off the court they are just two completely different people, and they value completely different things in life." He chuckles: "This is why I could never coach."

Though he may not have a psych degree, Brooks is used to managing these sorts of things, to being thrown into situations filled with new people. One of seven children raised in the small Central California town of Lathrop by a single mother, Lee, Brooks grew thick skin as a kid from getting thrown around. "I was the youngest," says Brooks, who as a high school freshman was still only 4-foot-11, "so I was the one that was always beat up and picked on. … I wouldn’t change it because it gave me a competitive spirit." He made stops at two other colleges before finding the right fit at UC Irvine. And he was an undrafted NBA journeyman who played for six different teams, spent part of a season shacking up with Charles Barkley, won an NBA title with Houston, and once even had the distinct dishonor of being traded at halftime of a game.

The constant hustle never bothered Brooks, a basketball fiend who as a kid figured out how to MacGyver the town’s new community center so that he could sneak in for more court time at night. (The trick was wedging tinfoil in the lock by day so it wouldn’t click closed, then using soda tabs to jimmy the wall switches and turn on the overhead lights.) "We were little gym rats," Brooks says of his childhood peers. "It changed my life, that community center." In 2011, with Lee in attendance, the center was named after Brooks.

Scott Brooks (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Scott Brooks (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Even when he retired from playing and turned his sights to the sideline, Brooks went about building his coaching career the same way he’d done everything else: By taking nothing for granted. His first lead gig was with the ABA’s Southern California Surf, a role that required a lot more than what’s traditionally found in a head coach’s job description. "There were times I was driving a van with 10 players," Brooks says. He scheduled gym times and booked hotels. "There were times I’m taping [the players’] ankles based on the memory and visions I have from my trainers from the past 20 years taping my ankles — the figure eights and the pre-wrap — hoping I don’t get anyone hurt."

All of that moving around exposed Brooks to different personalities, different towns, different offensive schemes, different everything — giving him a handle on, and respect for, the pure breadth of the basketball experience. "Sometimes you hear the expression, ‘He’s a players’ coach,’" says Leonsis, "and you think, ‘Oh, he’s nice to the guys.’ I think that’s misunderstood. I think it’s more: He has empathy for what they go through as players."

Beal is one who uses the phrase "players’ coach" to describe Brooks. "He’s real down to earth," Beal adds. "He’s a young guy still. Easy to relate to and played in the league. We know when he’s serious, we know when he’s all about business and basketball. He has a pretty distinct line of when it’s basketball time and when it’s time to have fun."

Like Brooks, Beal comes from a big family; he has two older and two younger brothers, all of whom play or played college football. "Football is probably still my favorite sport," says Beal, who played quarterback, receiver, and safety in high school, "but I just didn’t have the body that they have. They’re all linemen, so they’re all way bigger and huskier than me. I’m a little bit taller." He cracks the tiniest smile. "And more frail than they are."

Over the course of his five NBA seasons, Beal has missed time for various injuries to his leg, wrist, big toe, shoulder, and pelvis, among others; last year, he sat out 27 games. But that didn’t deter the Wizards — who drafted Beal with the third overall pick in 2012 and have seen him develop, when healthy, into one of the league’s most talented backcourt threats — from signing him to that max contract this past July. Really, it was the contract itself, not the guy inking it, that seemed to bother Wall. It’s no secret that his contract, which he signed in 2013 under an older, more restrictive salary cap, drives him crazy, especially when he compares it to deals like Beal’s and James Harden’s.

"I understood exactly what he meant by his comments," Beal says. "It’s more of a challenge. We want to be so good that we want to do whatever it takes for us to win, whether it’s us scoring, whether it’s guarding the best guy — sometimes we argue over little things like that — or who’s gonna guard the hot guy right now. It’s not anything personal, it’s just competition."

Going into the season, Brooks says, he had heard rumors that the Wizards’ two best players didn’t always see eye to eye. But he likes to think he has a good sense of these sorts of things: "When you meet people you can tell," he says simply, like Will Hunting describing how Mozart saw music. "Going into the season, I never anticipated there would be any problem, and now coaching them for six, seven months now, being around them, I never see problems. Now, are they going to have disagreements? Absolutely. And, quite frankly, you want that."

If anything, the most pressing issue with respect to Wall and Beal isn’t how much love they have for each other, it’s how often they ought to play. With 20 games left, Brooks’s playoff preparation must take many forms; at this time of year coaches and players have to balance often-competing interests of angling for playoff seeding without burning out, all while throwing in some rotation experimentation and rest. With their injury history and their heavy usage, Wall and Beal sometimes seem overworked. But within the Wizards organization their playing time isn’t always considered in terms of game minutes; time spent in practice is figured in, too, and the Wizards have worked to cut down significantly on that.

It’s something Brooks picked up on while visiting Gregg Popovich at a San Antonio Spurs training camp during Brooks’s year away from coaching: A long practice isn’t always a better practice. Besides, Brooks says, he remembers from his playing days that the best NBA players will find ways to cut drill lines and get more rest. (Leonsis adds that with the NBA’s high-speed SportVU cameras, the team can receive data on the nature of a player’s movements during game situations and manage playing time accordingly; not all minutes take equal exertion.) "I didn’t want the sabbatical," Brooks says of his travels to San Antonio and elsewhere, "but I was gonna get better from it." Hearing about what he was able to accomplish in that time makes it sound like a blessing in disguise in a profession that is stressful, tunnel-visioned, and constantly tangled up in unified theories of usage minutia.

Brooks visited five NBA training camps and popped into various practices throughout the year. "I went to college practices, college games, NBA games," Brooks says. "I ran a few high school practices myself and taught my daughter how to drive. I went to USC–Notre Dame football in South Bend. I would never have been able to do that. I went to Spain, spent 12 days with the Spanish national coach, Sergio [Scariolo]. I did a lot of fun trips with my wife, went to parents weekend at USC."

Bradley Beal (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
Bradley Beal (Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Now he’s back to figuring out things like whether Jason Smith should be rewarded for promising play with additional minutes, or whether Beal should run point from time to time — "he has my trust," Brooks said after trying that experiment against Golden State — or whether it’s more important to get recent acquisitions like Bogdanovic and Brandon Jennings into the mix than it is to stick with hot lineups. (In a loss to the Raptors that followed a road win in a home-and-home, Brooks opted not to go with the small second unit that had run up the score in the first game.) Brooks says that his preference, as a player who frequently moved around, was to try to blend in as soon as he could, and this shows in how he has deployed the newest Wizards. Bogdanovic has appreciated that approach: "I got iPads to learn the plays," he said after his first game as a Wizard, "but complete participation on the court is the best way to learn." Jennings told reporters last week that, unlike every coach ever, Brooks actually told him to shoot more in his Washington debut.

Against the Orlando Magic on Sunday, Beal scored 32 points, Wall recorded a double-double, Brooks chewed out his players as they trailed at halftime, and the Wizards’ trade for Bogdanovic yielded big results. The 27-year-old shooting guard hit eight 3-pointers, including a back-to-back pair late in the game following a chaotic Wizards possession and a Brooks timeout that put Washington ahead 115–114. Wall nearly botched the game with a poorly advised brick with six seconds to play, giving Orlando a chance at a final winning shot. It was easy to imagine everything breaking against the Wizards, like a Plinko disk ricocheting into oblivion.

But then Wall turned around, raced back on defense and leaped up with his hand in the air, like an NFL special teams player trying to block an extra-point kick, rattling Orlando’s Aaron Gordon juuust enough that he put too much arc on the shot. It was a play not many point guards can make, the sort that Wall points to when he talks about why he’s one of the best. The ball rattled off the rim as the final buzzer sounded. It wasn’t a pretty win — at one point, the Wizards had trailed by as many as 17 — but it was a satisfying one. "They put four 3-point shooters out around one of the best point guards in the world," Magic coach Frank Vogel said after the game.

Leonsis sits about two seats away from Brooks during many Wizards games, and he likes to observe his new hire’s every micro-encounter and draw broad conclusions. (At one point, he refers to an overheard conversation between Brooks and an official during the Utah game as "a really interesting case study in leadership style.") Recently, he says, he watched Wall come off the floor and get vocal inside a huddle, and he watched Brooks stand back and let him do it, and he appreciated that. "There’s no, ‘You’re usurping my authority,’" Leonsis says. "It’s: ‘If I don’t say a word, and John gets across what I saw, then that’s more powerful than from me.’ That comes from confidence. I know there’s other coaches in the league that would say, ‘You’re breaking the pecking order.’"

Different players call for different tactics; Beal says early in the season, when his shot wasn’t falling, Brooks encouraged him not to change anything, to just keep shooting. "You have to be able to have that confidence and those same mechanics of trusting your shot," Beal says. "Because they’ll fall eventually. It’s always the law of gravity." He adds that Brooks is "always reading my body language, always making sure I’m into the game," while Wall says that Brooks is "always telling me I could do something better, and that’s what you need — you don’t need [somebody] that’s gonna just talk success to you all the time." Both Wall and Beal pointed out that, this season, they’re each having career years. "We’re letting our game speak for itself and showing people there’s no beef on our team," Beal says.

Brooks’s sabbatical may be over, but he remains a curious guy at heart. (Leonsis says that twice now he’s spotted the coach sightseeing by himself around D.C. at night.) He made it a point to visit Wizards players after he was hired last spring, going to Orlando to have dinner with Gortat and Los Angeles to see Beal. His trip to see Wall took place right after the point guard had surgery on both knees at the Cleveland Clinic Marymount. Wall was woozy from his meds, but Brooks stayed in town for a few days and the two watched the NBA playoffs, had dinner, and talked lots of hoops. Wall came away from the visit excited to play for someone with the eye of a point guard and the experience of a champion, while Brooks found himself thinking about Wall’s future, both near term and far.

"You can tell, if you watch a basketball game with a player, if he can be a coach or not," Brooks says. "And John can definitely be a coach. He doesn’t have to — why waste his time coaching? — but you can tell. He sees things. Like, wow, I didn’t even see that."

Like Brooks, Wizards fans don’t want to get ahead of themselves — but they didn’t see all of this coming, either.

Player statistics are current as of Tuesday.

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