The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Bradley Beal out, Wizards’ role players need to get into character

Kristaps Porzingis, Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma (not pictured) combine to use 78.7 percent of the Wizards' offense, according to statistical website Cleaning the Glass. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

There is a hierarchy in the layout of every NBA locker room, just as there is a hierarchy on every NBA roster.

In the Washington Wizards’ locker room at Capital One Arena and on the road, you’ll find Bradley Beal’s locker in the most secluded corner that also has a view of a wall-mounted television airing game tape or, on Sundays, NFL games.

Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma come next, set up in two of the other available corners or, on the road, wherever there is space to put an empty locker between them and another player. More often than not, Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma are seated so they make up the three points of a triangle around which everyone else in the room fills in.

That triangle makes for a harmonious locker room. On the court, it is a reliable support structure that has ballasted the Wizards this season to an intense degree.

Wizards’ Bradley Beal will miss at least three games with a hamstring strain

The only problem, as the Wizards try without Beal to lift themselves out of a slide in which they’ve lost six of seven, is that they haven’t gotten enough production from everyone else.

Beal is slated to miss three games — at Chicago on Wednesday, at Indiana on Friday and against the Los Angeles Clippers at Capital One Arena on Saturday — before he is reevaluated after suffering what Coach Wes Unseld Jr. on Tuesday called a low-grade hamstring strain. His absence is sure to put more pressure on Porzingis and Kuzma; Washington hasn’t found a steady fourth scorer since Rui Hachimura sprained his ankle and suffered a bone bruise Nov. 18.

Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma have thrived as the team’s Big Three. Porzingis is averaging the second-most points (21.8) and the second-most minutes (32.5) of his career. Kuzma is averaging career highs in points (20.6), field goal shooting (45.9 percent) and minutes (34.5). Beal (22.9) leads the team in scoring.

The only other player on the roster averaging double digits is Hachimura, who has been coming off the bench to the tune of 11.6 points but hasn’t played in nearly three weeks.

That is a problem for the Wizards, both because they rely on good offense to help power their defense and because that lack of scoring illustrates the fact that key rotation players such as starting point guard Monte Morris, starting forward Deni Avdija and backup wing Will Barton haven’t been operating at their full potential.

Unseld said getting more production from the players around Beal, Porzingis and Kuzma is about getting his supporting cast on the same page.

“We rely on those three — Brad, Kuz and KP — quite a bit. And, for the most part, they’ve put up good numbers,” Unseld said. “It’s still not where it needs to be as far as our overall lineups. We need to get more out of Monte; I know he’s kind of been in and out. Obviously missing Rui is a big piece; he’s been a contributor for us. And Corey [Kispert], he’s been solid across the board but at times inconsistent. So finding one more guy — I think Will has a terrific opportunity to step up, and I think he will.”

Morris is averaging a career-high five assists but is shooting a career-low 44.6 percent. Avdija’s 7.2 points are a 1.2-point dip from last season’s average as he shifts to a more defensive-focused role in the starting lineup, but his shooting has slipped to 39.3 percent, far below last year’s 43.2 percent and his rookie-year average of 41.7 percent.

Barton is also shooting a career-low 35.9 percent. The veteran wing is averaging just 7.4 points after moving from the starting lineup in Denver to the bench in Washington; it’s his lowest output since the 2014-15 season, his third in the league.

Part of why Unseld and Kispert think the team’s role players aren’t living up to their own standards is that Washington’s lineups have shifted so often because of injury or covid-related absences. Individual solutions vary — Unseld said Avdija allows frustration on offense to seep into the rest of his game, so instilling confidence in the 21-year-old is key. But the coach has had conversations with Barton about tailoring the 31-year-old’s shot selection to minimize contested two-point baskets and doing more of what he does best — getting downhill early in the shot clock, rebounding hard to push the pace and shooting in rhythm. That flow is hard to generate when the second unit keeps changing.

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“[Barton] is a rhythm-type player,” Unseld said. “So he’s got to go figure out how to generate a rhythm, and at times it’s tough in that second unit — that unit has been different a lot for us because of absences and injuries. I think it’ll come once he kind of settles into what [the bench] looks like.”

With Hachimura sidelined, Delon Wright (hamstring) not slated to return for at least the next two weeks and Beal out, Porzingis said at practice Tuesday that reversing the recent slide will require a few extra notches of effort from the entire roster. But in the long term, the Wizards’ chances of lifting themselves beyond hovering around .500 rest on him, Kuzma and Beal.

“I want the most minutes I can get, even if I’m dead tired. I still want to be out there, and [I] always feel I can give something to the team, and of course I try to be as effective as I can for this team, help Brad, help Kuz, help all the guys with playing on the court but also day-to-day, talking about basketball, figuring out how we can be better,” Porzingis said. “I enjoy the role that I have and, yeah, it’s the whole team, but it’s on us three to bring our level up and win these close games.”

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