Whereas the point guard position is in a state of flux from top to bottom, there is some certainty at shooting guard. The starter isn’t a mystery, and the pecking order behind him is also relatively clear.
With that said, the Wizards need more from this group (from multiple perspectives) if they want to separate from the other teams near the bottom of the league standings — which no one outside the organization can definitively say they do want. That process starts at the top — in terms of both players and staff.
By no means do we need to slander Washington’s lone star, but it is fair to wonder if he’s reached his ceiling. To be fair, that ceiling consists of him averaging more than 26 points per game with around five rebounds and six assists over the last two seasons. But that production hasn’t come without its share of failures.
His efficiency has dipped drastically this season. His field goal percentage is the lowest it’s been since his third year in the league, his three-point percentage is substantially lower than it’s ever been, and he’s considerably above his career high (which he set last year) in turnovers per game.
His clutch shooting this season has also been troubling. Per Inpredictable, his effective field goal percentage (which weighs a made three-pointer as essentially 1.5 made baskets, since it’s worth 1.5 times as much as a two-pointer) in the clutch is 35.5 percent, and that dips to 25 percent in buzzer-beating situations.
NBA Math grades every player in the league based on their offensive and defensive contributions. Beal’s ratings are rather jarring.
Take it all for what it’s worth. Beal is still a star, he’s certain to go to the All-Star game, and there’s a decent chance he’ll make an All-NBA team after the season. However, the idea that last season was simply scratching the surface for him may not have been true, and he’s pretty clearly not a player who can carry a subpar roster to the postseason on his own. However, the bigger problem on this roster might be who being blocked from getting onto the court.
At this time last year, McRae was on a two-way contract with Washington. By the end of the season, he was playing such a crucial role that his contract status was a hot-button issue — so much so that the team signed him to a standard contract that extends through this season.
McRae was recently sidelined with a finger fracture. During that time, the Wizards had the option to opt out of the rest of his $1.65 million deal for this year, but they didn’t. They chose to believe in him, and they’ve been rewarded for their patience.
Through 18 games this season, the 28-year-old is averaging 12.8 points (including 46.2 percent shooting from three-point range) in 21 minutes per game. The needle is also trending up — since his return, he’s averaging 22.8 points per game, knocking down 17 of his 32 three pointers (53.1 percent). In that vein, he has performed better than Beal, albeit in a low-volume role.
Mathews entered the season as this year’s version of McRae (as a two-way contract player), yet the process seems to have been even more accelerated for him.
From the moment he signed his contract, Mathews had a very clear role as a three-point shooter. He was a high-volume scorer and prolific from behind the arch at Lipscomb, and it was apparent as soon as the Summer League that it was going to translate to the professional level.
Even so, he’s caught fire quickly in the NBA. He’s only played five games in the G-League, as opposed to 13 in the NBA — suggesting the franchise views him as NBA-ready. During his time with the Wizards, he has converted on 51.2 percent of his shot attempts, 47.2 percent of his threes, and 92.6 percent of his free throws. He hasn’t received heavy minutes (13.2 per game), but that may be about to change.
All season, Mathews’ points per shot attempt have been remarkably high, but his recent rate has been astonishing. In his last three games, he has scored 56 points on only 22 field goal attempts. That’s over 2.5 points per field goal attempt, not made field goal. Not only is he extremely efficient, but he also has a knack for drawing fouls as he shoots — that’s part of the calculus here.
All three of these players are safe from being released or traded. The biggest question — aside from whether/when to officially promote Mathews to the NBA full-time — is how to get them all into the current eight- or nine-man rotation and eventually the 10-man shuffle once the team is at full strength.
Even as it stands, they’re often stealing minutes at other positions. According to Basketball Reference, McRae has logged almost as much time at small forward as shooting guard, and Mathews has actually played twice as much small forward as shooting guard — even though the latter appears to be his true position.
The off-ball success of McRae and Mathews poses another interesting dilemma. Even though his turnover rate is currently high, Beal has displayed in recent years that he is capable of playing point guard part-time. It would further complicate the pecking order at a crowded position, but the talent at that position is also rather marginal. The top players at the keystone position have also struggled mightily on defense, so who’s best-equipped to defend point guards should probably not even be considered. It’s not unfair to wonder whether Beal could slide there at times to get the reserve shooters onto the court.
Until Scott Brooks gets more creative with lineups, we may never see a modern-day unit on the floor — one with at least three true shooters. The two-guard position — Beal’s efficiency struggles aside — has done its best to offer that flexibility.