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The Wizards Have Found New Life Without John Wall

Washington has gone on a tear since its star was lost to injury, reinventing itself along the way. Yet the question isn’t whether the Wizards are better off without him; it’s how good they can be once he gets back.

A collage of the Wizards players with John Wall in the background, wearing sunglasses Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bradley Beal drove from the logo to the lane with just over six seconds left in the second quarter of the Wizards’ matchup against the 76ers on Sunday. With Ben Simmons draped over him and four other Philadelphia defenders looking his way, Beal glanced toward the rim, then threw an outlet pass to a wide-open Tomas Satoransky on the left wing. Satoransky, too, looked at the rim, then took a dribble toward the paint and lateraled the ball to Otto Porter Jr. Ten feet away from the nearest defender, Porter drained a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.

This is how a lot of trips down the floor go for Washington these days. In the 14 games since John Wall was lost to a left knee injury that required surgery, the Wizards have gone 10-4 across a daunting portion of their schedule. After topping the Thunder 102-96 on January 30, they have notched wins against the Raptors, new-look Cavaliers, Sixers, and Bucks. Washington looked uninspired just over a month ago, dropping six of nine, the worst of which was a 24-point rout at Charlotte. Now, this team is flooring the accelerator and climbing the Eastern Conference standings. Without Wall, the Wizards have seemingly reconsidered what they can be.

The reasons for this surge are myriad, starting with a new commitment to embracing ball movement. Though the team’s pace has decreased by about one possession per game since Wall went down, the Wizards have led the league in assists (29.9 per game) during that span. They are moving the ball more fluidly, a development that’s been evident in the variety and volume of shots from a roster previously dependent on the creativity of its top scorers. The blistering opening to Washington’s 107-104 win against Milwaukee on Tuesday—when the Wizards raced out to a 26-5 lead—underscores just how diverse the team’s attack has been. On its first five possessions, all five starters scored, with four coming on assists from teammates. Marcin Gortat and Markieff Morris nailed jumpers off Porter passes. Satoransky, surprisingly, was the one who created his own shot.

The second-year guard, who has been slotted into the starting lineup in Wall’s absence, has been the biggest revelation of this recent stretch. Head coach Scott Brooks’s conservative and repetitive lineup choices largely kept Satoransky off the court during his rookie season in 2016-17. Before Wall’s injury, his contributions consisted of rare, hyper-athletic fodder for fans.

As the Czech’s minutes have jumped from around 16 per game to about 29, his production has jumped, too. The 26-year-old is averaging 11.2 points and 5.9 assists through the past 14 contests, more than double his previous totals, all while shooting 58 percent from the field and playing grinding, effective defense against the likes of Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, and Steph Curry. “He goes out there each and every night knowing that he has a tough point guard he has to guard, a tough assignment, and he accepts it,” Beal said of Satoransky recently. “He goes out there with heart and passion, and he gets in his stance, and gets after it.”

Beal, meanwhile, has taken control of the team by assuming ballhandling duties in Wall’s absence. And while his shot attempts have taken a slight dip, his assist numbers are up from 3.8 to 6.7 per game. The ball movement from Satoransky and Beal has manifested in superior looks for Porter and Morris, whose field goal percentages have jumped from the mid-40s to the mid-50s during this stretch.

The bench has stepped up, too. Kelly Oubre, long a defensive stalwart but an offensive project, has looked more confident on the attacking end of the floor. He’s taken 10-plus shot attempts in nine of the past 11 games; he took 10-plus attempts in nine of 25 games before that. And even Ian Mahinmi, he of the splintering knees and the nightmare contract, made contributions on Tuesday in Milwaukee, scoring eight points and grabbing five boards. During one favorable sequence in the third quarter, the big man hopped, skipped, and jumped down the lane on one end of the floor, catching an errant pass and laying it in, and shortly thereafter slid in front of much faster Giannis Antetokounmpo to draw a charge. (It should be noted that Mahinmi’s most memorable contribution of the night was comic.)

A month ago, the most optimistic Wizards fans viewed Wall’s injury as a chance for the team’s compact and expensive roster to experiment, but few expected this from a group with a notably short bench. Moving forward, the question isn’t whether the Wizards are better off without Wall; it’s just how good they could be when he returns.

On Wednesday night against the Warriors, Beal looked tired. Facing the defending champions on the second leg of a back-to-back, the Wizards’ neo-alpha missed his first nine shots en route to a 3-of-15 performance that was capped, fittingly, by a missed dunk in the game’s closing minute.

Porter’s scoring run continued, as he tallied a season-high 29 points to go with 10 rebounds, but even that couldn’t make up for the rest of the squad shooting 36 percent from the field. Golden State won 109-101; as it turns out, the Wizards could have used another top-flight talent like John Wall.

There is no reason that Wall, who consistently ranks among the league leaders in assists, shouldn’t be able to thrive in the newest version of the Wizards. Wall isn’t historically known as a shoot-first point guard, even if the Wizards had tilted toward an offense in which he served as both the team’s key distributor and scorer before his injury. Yet Washington’s success upon Wall’s return will likely be contingent on willingness rather than possibility. Team chemistry has seemed exceptional with Wall sidelined; when he comes back, some of the off-court sourness that has surfaced in interviews and cryptic social media posts could also find its way onto the floor.

“Everybody eats,” Beal told reporters of Washington’s style of play a handful of games after Wall’s injury. “It’s fun basketball. Everybody gets a touch, everybody gets shots. It makes life easier. It keeps the locker room close, it keeps the camaraderie going.” “Great ‘team’ victory,” Marcin Gortat tweeted after the same game against Toronto, in what was perceived as a slight against Wall. There seem to be hard feelings in the locker room, though winning has proven a cure to many ills.

Wall is being pegged as an Ewing Theory candidate, and his injury has been the spark for more basketball ingenuity than Washington has displayed in a long time. Given that Wall’s return from surgery is expected around late March, that leaves the Wizards time to fiddle with new ideas against the Celtics, Spurs, and on Friday night, the Raptors. Still, Wall remains the engine that powers how far this group can go. He’s one of the best point guards on the planet, and even if his preferred style might clash with a more egalitarian system, in crunch time, the system often breaks down before the superstar.

During the past few weeks, the Wizards have done something that teams rarely manage midseason: They’ve made more out of less. Now that Washington has discovered a more effective way to compete, maybe everybody will be able to keep eating down the stretch.