WASHINGTON — Getting to call Deandre Ayton the number for Bradley Beal was an unmistakable positive for the Wizards during Thursday night’s 113-99 victory over the Phoenix Suns at Verizon Center.
For a refresher on this ugly side of the deal: Ayton was the No. 1 overall pick in June’s draft, Beal was the No. 2 pick in 2015. By the time either finished their years as a Saint Louis kid, the stat sheet would look nothing like the now-2-14 Suns. Ayton is averaging 22.8 points and 11.2 rebounds this season while Beal, the subject of trade speculation, has 18.7 points and 5.4 assists per game. It seemed like most any conversation about what the Wizards got for trading the number one pick could devolve into Beal-is-a-one-and-a-half-year-old’s-Suns-fan-saint-losing-his-manhood highlights.
Thursday night they were shelved in favor of a lineup run by Ayton, one that also had Mirza Teletovic, a two-time all-Star for the Knicks, in the post. The biggest difference came on offense — while Ayton became the focal point, Teletovic was thrown in for 16 defensive rebounds and contributed seven points.
Beal, however, still looked a little lost, finishing with 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting, and one of his misses was an alley-oop try to swing the flow of the game. The Wizards, bolstered by the emergence of wings Kelly Oubre Jr. and Justin Jackson, an offseason pickup from the Golden State Warriors, have made a go at building a lineup that isn’t a total guarantee to succeed. But the Wizards are within striking distance of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, a place they haven’t reached since 2013. Is this the roster they’re going to have the next couple years? Will everything come together quickly?
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Jackson, who entered Thursday averaging 15.7 points per game, described what they have been working on between games.
“We’re more into attacking,” he said. “There’s still going to be some work, but there’s definitely attacking off ball screens, reading the defense really well, attacking, moving well, finding people.
“And also for me, finding my shooters. As of late I think I haven’t been a very good shooter, but those first few games, you’ve got to get comfortable with that, and I’m still finding that. I’m shooting the ball well from 3-point range and just trying to keep improving.”
There’s a sense the Wizards have finally found an identity, starting with a group of guards in the starting lineup — behind John Wall, Beal and Kyle Korver — that is starting to play together. There’s optimism that the Wizards have talent — how much more of it is another question — but they also aren’t pretending that the future is easy.
“This is a first for a lot of us on this team,” Teletovic said. “You see the ball move, you see us move the ball. You see us guarding. You see those transition baskets. But you don’t know if we’re going to have that for three more years or four years, but we’re getting better and we have a lot of energy and a lot of soul and this team has so much potential. We’re young, but we have a lot of talent.”