- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 1, 2020

The last time John Wall and Bradley Beal stepped on the court together, the Wizards’ supporting cast looked vastly different. In the two years since, only two others from that roster — Thomas Bryant and Troy Brown — remain.

Training camps began Tuesday all over the NBA, a short turnaround for a league whose season ended just seven weeks ago. But for the Wizards, the workouts marked the latest step in trying to reincorporate Wall, coming off a torn Achilles, into a squad that has undergone a complete overhaul in recent years. The Wizards jettisoned most of their veterans to get younger last year, and this offseason added some experience to try and fix a porous defense.

The end result, the Wizards believe, better suits the strength of the team: the backcourt.

“We made a determined effort to change our roster,” Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “Guys that want to be here. Guys that want to compete for each other, that are going to love the gym, that are going to be coachable. We have that. We lack the experience … but our skill set will definitely complement those guys more.”

That may sound simple, but remember the circumstances — or to be blunt, drama — that followed the Wizards the last season in which Wall and Beal played together. A month before Wall was sidelined, the Wizards had a heated practice over their dysfunction that involved Wall cursing out Brooks and Beal pointing the finger at then-general manager Ernie Grunfeld. The Wizards went on to make a series of changes that season, including firing Grunfeld.

The drama seems to have lingered.

Last week, Wall did nothing to quiet chatter that he wants out of the District by offering only “no comment” over and over when asked about the rumors at a charity event.

There are also larger questions whether Wall and Beal can coexist now after Beal’s playmaking leap in Wall’s absence. But general manager Tommy Sheppard insists Wall isn’t heading anywhere. And with Wall and Beal still teammates, Sheppard and Brooks have said the team is better because of it.

After all, the duo made the playoffs in four of five years before Wall went down in December 2018. Brooks said Wall looks like his old self, as well.

“He’s as good and strong as he’s ever been,” said Brooks, who visited with Wall in Los Angeles to watch his rehab. “He has his speed and strength and his shot looks great.”

The Wizards have cautioned that they’ll slowly work Wall back into the fold. Sheppard suggested the team will try to manage the point guard’s workload by limiting his minutes to the low 30s and holding him out of back-to-backs.

For his career, Wall has averaged 35.9 minutes per game.

Even with Wall’s reduced workload, the Wizards could have the makings of an explosive offense. Washington routinely caught opponents off guard last year with a blazing pace that helped produce the 13th-best offensive rating prior to the league’s four-month shutdown due to the coronavirus. The Wizards finished 16th, though that was largely due to the dropoff without Beal and sharpshooter Davis Bertans in the bubble.

There are reasons to believe the Wizards’ offense will take another jump this year. Washington achieved its No. 1 goal of the offseason by re-signing Bertans to a five-year, $80 million deal. Bertans, in theory, should get cleaner looks with Beal and Wall on the floor. The team is also hoping for growth from Rui Hachimura, who has worked on expanding his 3-point shooting range.

Though the Eastern Conference has long been a punching bag, there are no guarantees that the Wizards should be penciled in for the playoffs. The top of the conference is ultra competitive and a number of the East’s lesser teams (Atlanta and Charlotte) splurged in free agency to chase the eighth seed.

Washington’s defense, too, remains a giant question mark. After ranking 29th last season, the Wizards tried to address the weakness by drafting forward Deni Avdija and signing center Robin Lopez.

Hachimura, though, said he believes the Wizards have enough to make a push.

“I feel like we’re going to make the playoffs for sure,” Hachimura said. “I don’t know how far we can go from there, but it’s going to be a fun year.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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