Guard optimism: Wizards envision dynamic future behind duo

Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

Ted Leonsis was busy this summer working on things that could pay off next summer and for many more years to come.

The Washington Wizards' owner recently announced a proposed $55 million state-of-the-art practice facility in conjunction with the District of Columbia.

The forward-thinking owner is also always looking for innovative ways to improve his team, opting to invest in a new virtual reality technology for the Wizards' players to use.

And next summer, Leonsis will open his wallet in hopes of landing a superstar free agent such as Kevin Durant.

Leonsis is determined to lift Washington basketball to heights it hasn't experienced since the Carter Administration ran the White House.

"Understanding the demography that is here, Washington D.C. is the fastest-growing, most educated, wealthiest, most wired, most millennials per capita city in the country," Leonsis recently said in an interview with ESPN.com. "There is this new generation and we have to create product services that are in sync with these demands."

There is also a new generation in the NBA -- one dominated by point guard and backcourt play -- and Leonsis owns an attractive piece of it. If the Wizards are going to pop out this season like the 3-D virtual technology they are utilizing, they'll need John Wall and Bradley Beal to break through the second-round wall that has stifled them for two straight seasons.

"They're growing and showing maturity and that they're leaders of the team. And I think some of that, they learned from Paul." Ernie Grunfeld, on Bradley Beal and John Wall

It is a pivotal season in Washington, where Wall and Beal will attempt to take that next step forward in their progression without Paul Pierce's leadership. The super duo are ready to prove that they -- and not the sweet 3-point shooting championship tandem in Golden State -- are the best backcourt combo in the NBA.

And should they prove as much, Wall and Beal could end up being the best recruiting pitch Washington has to lure Durant home.

"We're definitely the best backcourt in the league," Beal said at Wizards media day back in September. "The best. That's how I feel. I'm not going to say nobody else is better."

When Truth is gone

On Saturday in the Wizards' home opener against the New York Knicks, Wall and Beal will play a meaningful game at the Verizon Center for the first time since Pierce's last 3-point dagger as a Wizard was waved off in a crushing Game 6 loss to the Atlanta Hawks last May.

That night, the look of devastation was all over Wall's and Beal's faces as the Wizards' young guns were coming to grips with the fact that a second straight season had come to a halt in the second round of the playoffs.

It felt as if Wall would need even more time to recover from this than what was required for his fractured hand to mend.

"It is heartbreaking," Beal said then.

Months later, the pain turned into motivation. Wall, 25, and Beal, 22, started taking their first post-Truth steps toward becoming the leaders of their team. The two organized team workouts in Los Angeles in an attempt to build the chemistry and establish the leadership tricks they learned from Pierce.

"They both understand how important they are and it is more about the team and leadership that they are both providing," general manager Ernie Grunfeld said. "They called a team workout in L.A. which we had 12 of 13 players there. John and Bradley arranged that for everybody.

"They're growing and showing maturity and that they're leaders of the team. And I think some of that, they learned from Paul."

Pierce spent only one season in Washington. But his time in The District was much more impactful than his pit stop in Brooklyn. With the Nets, Pierce couldn't get through to younger players like Deron Williams. But he felt he could reach Wall and Beal, two sponges ready to soak up The Truth.

The crafty old vet repeatedly tried to let Wall and Beal know that they can be the best at their respective positions. He tried to teach them how to win and lead.

And we may already be seeing the fruits of Pierce's labor. In the Wizards' season-opening 88-87 win at Orlando, Wall and Beal each scored seven points in the last seven minutes to help erase an eight-point deficit.

"Me and John kind of looked at each other," Beal told The Washington Post. "And said, 'OK, it's time to take over the game.'"

Pierce would've given his poker face smile if he had seen it in person.

"Let me tell you my first feeling when they took it over," Wizards center Marcin Gortat said, according to the Post. "It was like, 'Oh my God, the season started.' That's what they like to do. This is what they do. Unbelievable. I'm witnessing this right now. I'm on the court, and I'm witnessing the progress from both of these young guys.

"It was amazing with these two young guys because they're still young, two kids, taking over the damn game. Literally on their own."

Better than Golden?

The Wizards' duo certainly still have a long ways to go if they are going to dethrone Golden State's Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. En route to the championship, Curry and Thompson averaged 23.8 points and 21.7 points per game, respectively.

While Curry was piecing together an MVP season with 7.7 assists, 2.2 steals and 48.7 percent shooting while winning 67 games, Wall and Beal were still taking steps toward learning how to win. Wall averaged 17.6 points, 10.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals while Beal averaged 15.3 points and 1.2 steals to help the Wizards reach 46 victories.

In the playoffs, Wall dominated the Toronto Raptors in the first round before fracturing his hand against Atlanta. Still, he returned after missing three games and averaged 17.4 points, 11.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 steals in the postseason.

Beal was spectacular at times in Wall's absence, averaging 23.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.6 steals in a coming-of-age-type postseason.

"They are very tough," said Atlanta's Al Horford. "Especially Bradley Beal. It seems like he grew in confidence as each game in the playoff series went along. John is a tough guy to keep up with. He is a competitor. I think they will definitely learn from Paul Pierce. ... They made us fight for every single thing. That series could have gone either way."

This season, Wall and Beal are projected by Kevin Pelton's SCHOENE system to be the fifth-best backcourt in total wins above replacement. Their projection of 16.2 is behind Curry and Thompson (26.0), Houston's Ty Lawson and James Harden (23.1), the Clippers' Chris Paul and J.J. Redick (21.0) and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson (16.4).

But since Westbrook dominates OKC's backcourt statistics, Pelton ranks Wall and Beal fourth among NBA backcourts with Wall as a top-five point guard and Beal a top-10 shooting guard. While Pelton also says SCHOENE projects Wall and Beal to stay around the same in the future with 16.2 combined in 2016-17 and then 15.8 in 2017-18, one general manager rates the Wizards' tandem higher.

The GM put the Wall and Beal combination in his top three backcourts in the league, with Golden State and Houston.

"I think experience is the biggest thing for them," the GM said. "They've had some unfortunate injuries for both of their guys at inopportune times. Wall, his speed and power is just so unique. He is clearly a worker because his jump shot is improving. Bradley's ability to make shots, and one of the underappreciated elements, just publicly from a perception standpoint, is he is a very good defender. I just think they are a very complete group, two very complete players."

Fast and faster

Washington coach Randy Wittman tweaked the offense this offseason and wants the Wizards to play at a faster, up-tempo pace with spacing for Wall to maximize his playmaking ability and find shooters.

"I don't know how John Wall plays faster!" the GM said with a chuckle. "To me, Bradley makes Wall so much better because of the shooting. Great shooting makes point guard play that much better, and that kid has a chance to be a great shooter."

Leonsis knows this. He is willing to dive into analytics and anything else that can make Wall and Beal better. It's why he partnered with STRIVR Labs Inc. to utilize virtual reality technology for player development, and to enhance the fan experience at Wizards games.

The hope is that players like Wall and Beal, who grew up in the video game generation, will benefit from virtual reality and be able to visualize and apply.

"We are living in these amazing times where the pace of change in this social adoption of technology truly has become incomprehensible," Leonsis said. "Five years ago there was no Snapchat or Instagram, no Fan Duel. We used to look at things in 10-year horizons.

"Now a Google or Facebook are looked at as older, maturing companies. And we know that algorithms are really kind of the main way that the world gets smarter. So big data, data science and analytics are part of that movement. It's like how I told people: It is like oxygen, you better get used to it."

If the Wizards are going to breathe Eastern Conference finals air for the first time since 1979, Wall and Beal will have to play like the best backcourt in the NBA -- as Beal says they already are.

If so, perhaps a certain 6-foot-9 DC-area native/free-agent-to-be might take notice.

"We are still very, very young and we were a couple of plays away two years ago and last year from going to the Eastern Conference finals," Leonsis said of the state of his team. "Our core of Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and John Wall is young with upside and that is kind of the buzz around the league, too.

"We've done a real good job of being able to manage the cap and we feel we can retain our key young players and when the time is right -- just like we did this offseason -- be able to bring on free agents or have assets that we can move in trade. That is something we have been planning for, and I think the players and fans get it. We are executing to that plan."