The Step Back

The Washington Wizards are both young and old this season

The Washington Wizards opened the season against the Philadelphia 76ers. They won the game by a score of 120-115. Afterwards, in an interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt, Bradley Beal wore a patterned black suit jacket, a black dress shirt and a black tie. He is 24-years-old. He looked stunningly distinguished in the way only high school and college kids can, when suits and dress shirts can’t help feeling like a masquerade. When Van Pelt asked him about his wardrobe selection and whether he had meant to make a statement, Beal grinned and said: “You gotta come in with a big bang.”

The response was full of an opening season’s swagger, but also spoke to Washington’s self-conscious efforts to be taken seriously, as if beneath the confident public face lurked the shaky voice of T.S. Eliot: “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

You see, the Wizards are a young team, but they no longer want to be defined as such. They want to be counted among the league’s elite, which would, by definition, alter the team’s relationship with forgiveness.

Beal won’t reach a quarter century on this earth until next June. John Wall will play all this season as a sprightly 27-year-old. Otto Porter is 24. And, while Kelly Oubre won’t turn 22 until the end of the calendar year, he is shaving this year, having leveled Kelly Olynyk in the primordial soup of last year’s playoffs. And that’s the rub — these Wizards are full of youth and experience both.

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Wall is now in his eighth season and Beal is in his sixth. They have amassed three trips to the second round. They have been on the cusp for half a decade now, and for half a decade, there has always been next year because the Wizards have always been the Eastern Conference’s team of the future.

But, while the Eastern Conference does not appear to have a logjam in its upper echelons, several teams are now laying claim to that once wide open future. The Wizards are young, but, as of this season, they are also quite old, at least when compared with the likes of Philadelphia and Milwaukee. And, if not for LeBron James’ ongoing battle with receding hairlines, one might even whisper of these Wizards in their ascent up the stairs: How their hair is growing thin!

At least such was the case in the team’s opening night game against Philadelphia, which bore witness to the NBA debuts of a 19-year-old Markelle Fultz and a 21-year-old Ben Simmons.

Wall tallied 28 points and plastered together a bedroom’s worth of poster-perfect drives, but he also shot 10-of-28 from the field. In other words, he was very Wall-like, and yet one couldn’t help but notice how he struggled at times against Simmons’ length. Simmons’ body will not grow shorter, but his NBA mind will become more experienced, as will Fultz’s.

On this particular night, Wall and Beal combined for 53 total points. And the actually ancient Marcin Gortat chipped in with 16, but the 76ers are the personification of youth in revolt and, as youth so often do, these youths stole the show.

A 26-year-old Robert Covington led all the Philly scorers with 29 points, but all the excitement (and concern) over Joel Embiid’s endless production while playing under a minutes cap and Simmons’ playing point guard and not point forward left little time to shout about Covington’s performance.

And the 76ers are like that — if you spend too much time watching or praising a single player, you miss the photosynthesis of an entire team sprouting from tanking’s Valley Forge.

In lieu of the awful news involving Gordon Hayward and the last two playoffs possibly leaving the Toronto Raptors shell-shocked, the Wizards very well may be the Eastern Conference’s second best team. Such prognostications began after the 2015 season, but the team, struck by injuries, missed the playoffs the following year. Last year, however, a return to health saw the team hold the status quo of winning in the first round and losing in the second. The difference between then and now is a lack of surprise, not only in how the rest of the league views them, but in the fact that the Wizards roster, as currently configured, is largely within sight of that almighty plateau to where all potential leads.

They are, with perhaps the exception of Oubre, what they are, which is a very good basketball team. And, by being very good at this particular moment in time, they are probably too young to knock off an aging LeBron and perhaps too old to survive the rising tide in Philadelphia, not to mention a force of nature named Giannis, who plays in Milwaukee. He is, after all, only 22 and surrounded by young talent to boot.

Of course, all that is beyond the horizon and there is a season still to play. Misfortune and improvement in all the NBA’s camps are not certainties. If anything, basketball teaches its observers in ways that are still startling if not new. And, moreover, sport should never be condensed to mere fatalism.

One of the more striking images from the game in Washington last week was a row of twenty-somethings in the stands. They all stood and danced. They all held beers in their hands. They all wore fake gray wizard beards on their chins and donned pointy, misshapen hats. After the win, they probably lost themselves in a maze of Metro tunnels or on the sidewalks of Adams Morgan. They will probably show their faces at more games this season too, and more than likely, their team will win most of them.

Wall and Beal are very good right now. The promising futures of other teams should not derail sight of that fact, but the question has dawned in a way which may not require new words but does demand urgency in a way past years never did — How good will their good be? The question is not intended to cut them down to size, but the attention span of the basketball universe tends to ask such questions for only a brief matter of time before it sizes up individual players and teams and moves onto those who still play like endless riddles, unfolding and bellowing like fog on an urban landscape.

I have measured my life in pick-and-rolls. Who wrote it better? T.S. Eliot or Wall and Beal? It doesn’t really matter. Wall and Beal are scuttling through the Eastern Conference, a ragged pair of claws and, well, Eliot isn’t. So be it. The universe is disturbed.

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