Win Over Lakers Should Give Hope and Earn Trust for Wizards' Future

Win over Lakers should give hope for Wizards' vision and future originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

When the Wizards' front office assembled their 2020-21 roster, they probably envisioned something close to what we saw on Monday night in their 127-124 overtime win over the defending-champion Los Angeles Lakers.

In overtime, Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook took over and scored all 12 of the Wizards' points. They raised their games when the team needed it most and played like superstars to close out the win.

In the fourth quarter, Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija - the team's last two first round picks - made a series of important plays. Hachimura had six of his 15 points in the fourth, while Avdija scored all eight of his points in the frame, including a clutch three with 51 seconds to go in regulation. They also teamed up to defend LeBron James, who scored 31 points in the game but had six turnovers in the second half.

Beal and Westbrook represent the now, while Avdija and Hachimura signal the future. Yet, all four were essential contributors in the victory, which gave the Wizards five straight wins for the first time since February of 2018.

"It feels different in a great way," Beal said of the win streak.

It took some time, and at 11-17 they still have a ways to go, but the vision laid out by general manager Tommy Sheppard and his front office is finally starting to come to life. The season began with Westbrook nursing a quad injury that affected both his play and the process of building chemistry with his teammates.

Then, they lost Thomas Bryant for the season with an ACL injury. And then they went through an unprecedented Covid-19 outbreak that took away two weeks of games and required several weeks more to recalibrate their team.

But now we are seeing a more fair representation of who the Wizards are and what they can be. Their five wins have come against the Celtics, Rockets, Nuggets, Blazers and now the Lakers. None of those are easy opponents and most can be counted among the better teams in the NBA.

When the Wizards traded for Westbrook, they hoped he would help improve their culture with his leadership. They wanted him to set a tone for others and that's apparently exactly what he's doing. Even Beal believes Westbrook has taken his game up a notch with his contagious competitive fire.

But Westbrook's impact has been all over the roster. At a recent practice, he asked each role player to define their roles in front of the group and offered feedback. Beal and others believe clarifying everyone's responsibilities helped lead to the turnaround.

"Russ told me I can guard one through five, that I'm the only one who can do it here on the team," Hachimura said. "That actually made me start to think about how important defense is."

The most encouraging takeaway from this stretch and Monday's win, however, may be in the bigger picture. To have Avdija and Hachimura contributing the way they are should not be glossed over. Avdija was playing in his 24th career game and Hachimura his 69th. Despite their age and inexperience, they made crucial plays late in a big game against a very good team.

How many players at this stage in their careers have performed like this for the Wizards in recent memory? Sure, Beal was fantastic right from the start and so was John Wall. But aside from them, very few young players have contributed at this level this early for the franchise.

The front office has essentially found two plug-and-play difference makers in back-to-back years. And neither fell into their lap with a top pick. They were each taken ninth, which is high but not high enough to offer any guarantees.

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You can point to them and also Garrison Mathews, who went from undrafted two years ago to recently playing his way into the starting lineup. The Wizards haven't lost since he did. 

The sample size for Mathews continues to grow. He has now played 41 career games, equal to half a regular season, and he's shooting 40.5 percent on 3.2 attempts per game. Not bad for the first NBA player ever from Lipscomb University.

The Wizards just haven't found many diamonds in the rough like Mathews over the years. But moves like that can be major separators for successful teams. That's partly how Denver, Toronto and Miami have built winners.

Those are the types of moves good organizations make, you just have to make quite a few of them to build a true contender. Maybe in time, the Wizards will get there. It's still early in that process, just 19 months since their front office was revamped under the name Monumental Basketball with Sheppard in charge, Brett Greenberg as assistant GM and Sashi Brown as chief planning and operations officer.

But this five-game win streak and the way it has been accomplished should give hope they are heading in the right direction.

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